Synopsis – In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.
My Take – I’ve have been fan of Westerns for a long time now, even though the genre has now run its course, a few films do spring up as surprises in hopes to revive the long forgotten tales of the American West, stories that were so popular back in the 1950s and 60s. Personally, I don’t see a Western as a historical retelling of an event or so but instead more of a study of the good vs. evil story and how they relate with the grandeur of nature in the background they are set it. As a result, with a high appreciation of the genre, the involvement of a talented cast, the generally positive critical reception and an exciting trailer, this film had me completely sold from the get go, despite the fact that it was directed by Scott Cooper.
Well, for the lack of a better word, I did despise, all three of director Cooper’s previous effects, namely, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace and Black Mass. Sure, he has great scripts, talented actors, and I can see he has a knack for directing hard hitting drama, but it’s impossible to notice how his films have always lacked heart and instead made too harsh do cover up for that. Thankfully, this time around, being influenced by some of the best all-time classics, the filmmaker delivers a film that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. While some may be turned off by the slow pace and the brutality of some scenes, this film is an intriguing period piece is a deliberate and uncompromising sort of film that other than being an awesome cinematic experience also gives us another great performance by one of the best screen actors of our time, Christian Bale.
Set in New Mexico in 1892, the story follows Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) of the Union Army of the 1890s. Having lost many friends and brothers in arms in battles against Apaches, Blocker openly shows his despise by tracking them pitilessly, all the while telling himself that he is doing his duty while people around him start becoming depressed and disillusioned. Now retiring after participating in many number of raids of the period, Blocker is ordered by his commanding officer, Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang), to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a renowned killer, from New Mexico to his home in Montana, where the President is determined he should be allowed to die.
While Blocker initially refuses, he reluctantly accepts for the smooth sailing of his retirement. Not long after the Captain, his small team of soldiers consisting of Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) and Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) and Yellow Hawk’s family which includes his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his daughter in law (Q’orianka Kilcher), his daughter (Tanaya Beatty) and grandson (Xavier Horsechief), start their journey, they find Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman in dire straits after just witnessing the murder of her entire family and the burning of her home at the hands of another Native American tribe.
Baker and his men know they must take this woman with them, not just to protect her from further attack and the elements, but to protect her from herself. The journey is very difficult and places every one of the characters in extreme jeopardy as they face the gangster Comanche youths, a disgusting group of trappers, and a rancher with an ominous sense of entitlement. However, their biggest challenge is to fight their inner demons and overcome their differences in order to survive in hostile territory.
While the plot may sound a bit similar to 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma (also starring Bale), this film is a far more brutal affair of violence, betrayal, and other things that are often found in this bloody genre. This film instead is more of a powerful and meditative study of violence and the possibility of redemption, showing both bad and good that being in war can bring, albeit with unforgettable visuals and breathtaking performances. To make its mark, the film opens with one of the most violent scenes I have seen in recent times, where a family, including children, is massacred by Indians. The very emotional and disturbing tone set at that moment will definitely have you wondering, who the real hostiles are.
As the story takes place in a violent period, director Cooper wants us to understand that the best men are the ones with blood on their hands, and he accomplishes this with great precision. Yes, the film is a slow burner, and may feel a little long and a little talky in spots, but director who also wrote the screenplay, deliberately does so to set an atmosphere which alternates between the brutal and the futile. The film is indeed uncompromising, with the violence being the kind that takes no prisoners and isn’t afraid to hold back, while not going over-the-top that it feels gratuitous. Director Cooper has made a film that is very much a nuanced western, in the sense that nothing is black and white, and instead examines the concept of who really are the hostiles in this struggle, the Natives or the white man. While, some may not like this deviation from the norm, I found it extremely refreshing, as the film showed that even in those harsher times; there were people who struggled with this very issue, without taking away from the scene at hand.
Director Cooper also finds the right balance between violent sequences that focus on the witnesses’ reactions rather than graphic elements and clever dialogues between the diversified cast of characters. The most fascinating character is Captain Joseph Blocker, who seems to be a pitiless racist at first sight but who turns out to be a man with a strong moral compass who goes through a coming-of-age on this fateful journey and ends up not only forgiving the Indians for killing his partners but even empathizing and sympathizing with them, ending up defending them beyond duty. His positive development exemplifies the difficult relationship between European settlers and America’s First Nations and is ultimately a sign of forgiveness, hope and peace.
This positive moral contrasts the quite sinister mood of the film with an elevated body count and sensitive topics such as depression, revenge and suicide as many characters shatter under the burden of the challenging order. Also, what could have been a major distraction from the main mission, which in itself is very heartfelt and is never lost even with everything else potentially threatening to, is actually what provides the film’s heart and vulnerability. Rosalie’s plight and back story really resonated with and moved me, as did the very heartfelt coda and a persuasive message, delivered just about right, that has as much relevance now as it did then.
Here, the threats along the way are external and internal, often soldiers just as culpable as the “savages” they hunt. Joe is a man on a mission to bring justice against the Indians, but like the times he’s in, it is time to change to benevolence as the end of the century approaches and a kinder world of connection and cooperation begins, slowly and surely, like the film. The appreciation for a person regardless of race, is director Cooper‘s ultimate aim. In ways, this Western is reminiscent of the revisionist Dances with Wolves, both of whose slow pace, almost at time painful, is reflective change’s pace. Visually the film is stunning as cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works his magic with some of the most spectacular of ways, ranging between stark and lush. Similarly the music has atmosphere and grace without being intrusive.
Sometimes the film has scenes with just dialogue and shots of actor’s expressions which speaks volumes with no music or sound featured and the entire better for it. However, this film is not without its flaws. Firstly, its run time of 134 minutes could have easily been cut down. Second, its depressing tone. While the film’s dark plot resonates with the tale director Cooper is out to tell, for some the film may turn out to be too depressing. In the sense there is so much death on screen that at times the film seems like it is a story about death and in a way it is. The acts of violence in the film happen quickly, but the repercussions of those acts are dwelt upon. We bear witness to the effects of death in its various forms. As such the film becomes more than just a story about death, but one about our reconciliation with mortality; our understanding of an outcome that is inevitable for us all one way or another. Yet, the heavy subject matter, the films pull some great performances from the main actors.
The highlight here is, of course, Christian Bale, is at his best and delivers a quiet yet an impressive performance. Bale’s performance is easily awards worthy and whenever he controls the scene it is riveting. Rosamund Pike also nails it as the lone survivor of the attack described earlier. She exhibits grief better than even the most experienced of actors. The stellar supporting cast consisting of Wes Studi , Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson are also a delight. On the whole, ‘Hostiles’ is a haunting and emotionally engrossing Western which despite its depressing tone deserves a watch for its stunning landscapes, intriguing characters and strong acting performances.
Directed – Scott Cooper
Rated – R
Run Time – 134 minutes