Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach, and Q’orianka Kilcher
‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,’ reads the D.H. Lawrence quote that opens Hostiles, the grimly and aptly titled new western from Scott Cooper. Set in 1892 in the later years of what is still known as the Indian Wars, it bleakly portrays the essential violence that underpinned the American frontier and its inhabitants.
Christian Bale plays Joseph Blocker, a captain in the US army with a dark reputation and a self-proclaimed ‘war bag of reasons’ for hating the people he calls ‘savages’. Nearing retirement, he is reluctantly ordered to release from prison his one-time nemesis, a now cancer-ridden Cheyenne chief called Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and escort him back home with his family to Montana. On their way, the party encounter a pioneer woman called Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) – the sole survivor of a terrifying Comanche attack on her homestead. Despite mutual suspicion, the group embark on the gruelling journey to Montana, beset by foes on all sides.
An early series of shocking murders sets the tone for Hostiles, which offers up a litany of horrors over the course of its two-and-a-bit hour run-time – many’s the scene that finds the protagonists digging fresh graves. It’s an often brutally violent film, a revisionist world in which there are few complete innocents and both white men and Native Americans commit horrific crimes. ‘Who are you to judge me,’ a murderous deserter (Ben Foster) demands of Blocker, and he has a point.
I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled. If you do it enough, you get used to it.
Toxic masculinity hangs heavily over Cooper’s film – these are men who have bottled up decades of brutality and trauma, only to find an outlet in the commission of rage-and-terror-induced atrocities. Cooper’s vision of the American West is a plausibly blood-stained one, lending Hostiles an atmosphere as moody and threatening as the storm clouds bearing down on the party’s passage across the plains.
Speaking of those roiling storm clouds, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi effortlessly captures the rugged and menacing beauty of the west – I could have simply watched shots of the characters riding through Hostiles‘ enchantingly wild landscapes for hours, and one late wide shot in particular, set in a wheat-field backdropped by snow-capped mountains, is stunningly constructed. The visuals are complemented by Max Richter’s stirring score, which provides a suitably epic soundtrack to the party’s odyssey.
Unfortunately, Cooper struggles to populate this grim, stark world with characters worthy of it. Though Pike and Bale give forceful enough performances, there’s not really much to either Rosalie or Blocker. Blocker, in particular, turns out to be a disappointing study, not as complex as he initially appears. Though we are repeatedly told he hates Native Americans, he never really shows it by his actions once the party gets going, which robs the inevitable softening of his views of impact.
Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake.
But Hostiles‘ real sin is its treatment of its Native American characters. Though, for all the violence committed by men on all sides, it takes an avowedly pro-Native American line (‘Our treatment of the Natives can never be forgiven,’ one character gravely proclaims), it seems startlingly reluctant to let Native Americans speak for themselves. Wes Studi is an imposing and regal presence as Yellow Hawk, but he and the rest of his family (played by Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty and Xavier Horsechief) are granted only a handful of lines each.
They are reduced to cyphers, mute observers to the white Blocker’s moral journey of discovery, and, queasily, the film focuses far more on the trauma suffered by Rosalie than the horrors inflicted on its female Native characters. Despite its pretences, Hostiles sees its white characters as more important than its Cheyenne ones, and for a film that pretends at progressiveness, it’s an unforgivable failing.
Frustratingly, there is the core of a very good movie at the heart of Hostiles, one that never quite manages to emerge. There are times where it all comes together, when the hard-boiled violence and epic sweep come together to create moments of genuinely compelling drama, not least during an immaculately constructed climactic shoot-out. But ultimately for all that Hostiles is an undeniably atmospheric and occasionally beautiful film, it is repeatedly let down by thin characterisation and its dubious racial politics. It’s a triumph of tone, but certainly not of substance.