‘Hostiles’ Are US (Movie Review)

You can easily label Hostiles as a revisionist western. Then again, it’s not as though any filmmakers try to make classic westerns anymore, what with the modern emphasis on morally questionable heroes and increased awareness of what certain films tend to glorify and the efforts to subvert certain expectations. So sure, Hostiles is another western that goes after the grey area, more than it attempts to paint things in black and white. The results lead to some strong performances that fit right in with the beautiful landscapes captured on film. I only wish writer/director Scott Cooper found a way to tell a more involving story.

Christian Bale stars and sports an incredible mustache as Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a military man well known for his distaste for Native Americans. He is tasked with a final mission to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family (including Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) back to their tribal lands. This mission will be taxing, to say the least, but Blocker is joined by other soldiers played by Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and Timothee Chalamet. Along the way, they come across a widow (Rosamund Pike), whose entire family was slaughtered by Comanches, along with a criminal soldier (Ben Foster), who will also need to be escorted north.

The somewhat episodic nature of this film feels like something I should appreciate more. Similar to something like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman (except darker and less quirky), Hostiles features a central mission for Blocker and his men to focus on, but every so often a notable character actor pops up and the narrative shifts for a few scenes. This amounts to seeing many actors such as Peter Mullan, Scott Wilson, Bill Camp, Stephen Lang and John Benjamin Hickey, arriving with great makeup and facial hair to deliver solid performances and monologues. However, through all these interactions, I never felt like Cooper’s writing was building this story to anything more than what I could glean already from the film’s poster.

Hostiles is the title of the film, and you can probably guess the tagline refers to how we are all just that. I’m all for a meditative look at what it means for characters to see one way and soon realize they are a part of the same thematic scenario, but there should be a point where that effort leads to something more substantial or different from the many films that have explored this same concept in the past. That ultimately becomes a significant shortcoming of the film, as not even the finely nuanced performances from this talented cast can make up for a script so focused on hammering a single point home.

This does not take away from many of the other elements of the film though. As mentioned, there are some great performances here. I had some similar issues with the previous Cooper/Bale collaboration, Out of the Furnace, but could also argue it’s one of Bale’s most exceptional performances in an impressive career. He’s not quite at that level here, but Cooper is undoubtedly getting terrific work out of Bale on a consistent level. One could point out the many others here as well, so I’ll just put the spotlight on Rory Cochrane. He continues to be an unheralded character actor (a long way from Dazed and Confused), that was even able to make the previous and very forgettable Cooper film Black Mass have at least one compelling aspect.

Putting the cast aside, this movie looks fantastic. Some amazing locations were found to support the visual depiction of this journey and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi deserves plenty of credit for finding enough moving imagery in a film that does not miss out on the brutality of the times. Also notable, the great score by Max Richter, which does a great job to convey certain emotions seen in a variety of scenes without overdoing it. As the film is already putting so much emphasis on how actions make everyone hostiles in some way, having a score that pushes through in its own direction is a valuable aspect to highlight.

There’s also the unglamorized action that further emphasizes what we are getting as far as the themes at play. This is a brutal film that doesn’t let many people off the hook, including women and children. That means the gunplay tends to ring true, as we see a variety of shootouts that have major consequences. Additionally, thanks to the stark approach to action, the sense of loss is also captured well, perhaps best evidenced by a scene with Pike’s character, as she attempts to dig a grave with her bare hands.

Still, I wish the story was on the same level as the technical aspects. There is plenty to admire in Hostiles, and even the one major theme is given some effective angles thanks to the strong supporting cast. The film just doesn’t quite find a way to be something more. Not helping is the choice to minimize Native American actors, including Studi, who is prominently billed. Thankfully enough does work overall to make the experience worthwhile. This is a dark, violent film that treats the west in a way that feels authentic and I also always give credit to a movie featuring some of the best facial hair of the year.

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