*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Middleburg Film Festival. Hostiles opens December 22nd.*
Hostiles director Scott Cooper introduced his film at the Middleburg Film Festival last night with a speech, about how he hoped it could help heal the wounds of divisiveness that have plagued our country in recent weeks. It was a heartfelt message, to be sure, but right in the middle of it he also had a complaint. About film criticism. About how it had become “bloodsport”, and that too often movies are ripped apart from the moment they are released. Perhaps, he’s still feeling the stings of lukewarm reviews for his previous two movies, Out of the Furnace and Black Mass.
Cooper may want to prepare himself for another polarizing response, because Hostiles, good as it often is in highlighting the brutality and prejudice that has always been part of this country’s soul, is going to take a lot of heat. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanag, the Old West has never been quite so gorgeous, the dusty plains mingling with the twilight to strike an indelible image. It strikes a stark contrast to the violence in America circa the late 19th-century. The film begins with such violence, as a frontier family is mericilessly slaughtered by a band of Native Americans. The only one to survive the deaths of her husband and two daughters is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), but the things she saw haunt her, driving her to the brink of sanity.
The film centers on Christian Bale as retiring Army Captain Joseph Blocker, who has built his career on being just as ruthless as the Natives he’s come to despise. With sentiments towards them changing, Blocker finds himself in a world he no longer understands. He’s spent so much time hating and killing them that he outright refuses an order to escort dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (the great Wes Studi) and his family (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief) to Montana, where they will be left to live in peace. Deciding to be a good soldier, Blocker takes the assignment, his final one, and rounds up a team of loyal soldiers (Timothee Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors) to accompany him. Their journey is soon joined by Quaid, and eventually by a former soldier (Ben Foster) who has been sentenced to death for his violent crimes.
So this is your classic Western “point A to point B” movie, with the threat of attack looming at every step. Attacks happen on a regular basis, with Block’s party dwindling it seems by the day. Soon it becomes clear Blocker can’t complete his mission without Yellow Hawk’s help, but he’ll have to overcome his personal prejudices and learn to trust the Native Americans. The bulk of the film isn’t so much about Yellow Hawk, which is disappointing, but instead about Blocker and his transformation from a murderous bigot into a man of understanding. It’s a familiar story, but with so many Native American characters along for the entire journey it’s a shame we don’t get to see things from their perspective. If you’re using the mistreatment of Native Americans to make a point about racial division, it shouldn’t just be the white characters who have a say. And to be frank, it’s damned hard to believe Blocker could make such an evolution given how he is for so much of the movie.
That said, Bale does a tremendous job depicting Blocker’s many demons, done with the barest minimum of dialogue. Along with Pike, who is always terrific at portraying women on the edge, they give the film a steady foundation that lasts through some of the slow patches. While the supporting cast are uniformly excellent it’s Rory Cochrane as a career soldier haunted by his memories that will leave the greatest impression.
Hostiles is as poetic as it is ferocious, and entertains while being thought-provoking. The conversations it sparks may not be exactly what Cooper hoped for, but if it gets people talking then has to be considered a victory.