Film Review: Hostiles

Christian Bale smolders with obsidian-black fury in this overacted and underwritten western about a U.S. cavalry officer ordered to escort home the Cheyenne chief he once tried to kill.
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Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a western that wants to encompass the entire moral history of the Indian Wars into one fell, vengeance-rattled saga. Of course, it doesn’t succeed—that is the fate of westerns that overextend themselves. It doesn’t completely fail, either. There are images here that will rattle around in your head with a chilly echo for days afterward, not to mention a nagging sense that one has just witnessed a great and unsolvable crime.

Opening with no less a pronouncement than D.H. Lawrence’s chastisement of the American soul (“It has never melted”), the 1892-set story begins with a mirrored set of debaucheries. A settler family’s humble home is attacked by Comanche raiders, who kill the children and father, scalping him, leaving the mother Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) pale and shattered. Not far away at a New Mexico fort, cavalrymen drag a captured Indian behind a horse like a toy. Looking on with bored detachment is Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale). He has already just about run out his time when he is tasked with one last mission before mustering out: Escort the captured Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their ancestral lands in Montana. Blocker is ordered to disregard the fact that he and Yellow Hawk once butchered each other’s men in close combat.

This long loop of a journey provides Cooper with a useful string on which to hang a series of increasingly violent episodes that test the limits of Blocker’s stoic outlook. Some of these developments are not surprising. It doesn’t take much to guess that at some point the Indian-hating Blocker will find that he has more in common with a hated enemy like Yellow Hawk than the white civilians he is bound to defend. It is even less surprising that Rosalie works through her trauma by bonding with the Indian children in Yellow Hawk’s family and warming to Blocker as he starts to shed the stony-warrior carapace. As in many westerns, the frequency of shootouts and the short lifespan of most of the characters leave one shocked that there would have been any humans left alive on the entire Western frontier. That predictability, though, is not what hamstrings Hostiles.

The movie’s soul is that of a myth-busting 1970s revisionist western. But it is dressed in impeccable finery, from the high-toned formality of Masanobu Takayanagi’s ravishing cinematography to the funereal brooding of the performances. Hostiles gets lost somewhere between those two poles. While Blocker’s detachment journeys further into their heart of darkness, beset by everyone from renegade Indians to savage fur trappers and racist ranchers, each encounter bludgeons much of the poetry out of this rumination on loss and guilt. Cooper’s screenplay, based on a manuscript given him by the widow of the late Donald Stewart (Missing, The Hunt for Red October), strives to make a statement about the American way of life, the genocide of the Native American people, the inescapable savagery of war, and the tenaciousness of trauma.

It’s a heavy load to bear. The actors can’t help but struggle under this weight. There is no shoddy work to be seen here, with even the usually monochromatic Pike finding unexpected depths in her somewhat one-dimensional role. Everyone from Rory Cochrane to Q’orianka Kilcher shine in their darkened roles. But the plodding and one-note nature of the movie is thrown into stark relief when Ben Foster shows up as Wills, a murderous prisoner Blocker’s depleted column has to escort. In his all-too-brief time on screen, Foster brings a well-needed mercury-like trickiness and danger to this sullen tale. When Wills wryly reminds Blocker that “we’re all guilty of something,” it feels like something close to a statement of intent for this whole guilt-ridden enterprise.

Cooper has faced this issue before. In Out of the Furnace, he struggled mightily to invest a factory-town melodrama with an epic sweep and nearly succeeded. The passionately awaited Black Mass was a trickier creature, its sepulchral tones and Johnny Depp’s killer-clown act working against the jangly roots of its Boston crime story. In Hostiles, Cooper’s approach again veers close to overkill, its predetermined nature burying the spontaneity and risk that a drama this heavy with historical and moral overtones so desperately needs.

Hostiles is a blood-and-thunder tale that could have used less of both.

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