Filmmaker Scott Cooper does not make “easy” movies. His debut feature Crazy Heart was a rough look at a washed-up country singer; Out of the Furnace chronicled unforgiving life in modern day Appalachia; and Black Mass was an unflinching look at the crimes of Whitey Bulger. For his latest feature, Cooper continues his streak of hard-edged films, but this time he’s working within a genre that’s a perfect fit for his sensibilities: the Western. Tackling issues of Native American displacement and the reverberations of violence, Hostiles is an unforgiving look at an unforgiving time filled with unforgiving people. While the pacing can get frustratingly languid at times, and there’s a bit of a disconnect between theme and what’s on screen, Christian Bale terrifically anchors this memorable and haunting entry in the Western genre.
Hostiles takes place in 1892 and stars Bale as legendary Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker, who has spent his career running up against Native American resistance and has fought with little to no mercy. But now, as times are changing, Joe is ordered to escort one of his most ruthless (in his words) prisoners and his family back to their home in Montana. This prisoner, Commanche Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), had been an adversary of Joe’s, and he and his family have been prisoners for 11 years. But due to his failing health, it’s been decided and ordered by President Benjamin Harrison that Chief Yellow Hawk deserves to die in his homeland, as citizens of the United States have started taking up the cause of the mistreatment of Native Americans.
After fierce resistance, Blocker assembles a team of fellow Army men and begins the long trek from New Mexico to Montana, never failing to hide his disdain for fulfilling this duty. But shortly after they leave, the team stumbles across a woman named Rose (Rosamund Pike), whose entire family was brutally murdered by Cheyenne Native Americans. She joins the crew, and the trek continues to encounter hostiles of any and every sort along the way.
Right from the opening sequence it’s clear we’re in a Scott Cooper movie, but again his unflinchingly gritty outlook is a perfect fit for this harsh and violent time. Reuniting with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Cooper conjures brilliant imagery here, capturing the New Mexico landscape with a haunting beauty that underlines the themes of his story. Indeed, this is a tale of a prejudiced Army Captain who must find it in himself to work together with these “others” if they’re to succeed in their mission, and each successive hostile that attacks them is another reminder that we’re constantly surrounded by threats and problems, and the best way to ensure survival is to collaborate. Depressingly, it’s timely subject matter that still rings true over a century later.
But the film at times has trouble reconciling its desire to tell a story about the long-lasting effects of Native American displacement with the reality that most of the story revolves around the white characters. Q’orianka Kilcher, who broke out in a huge way in The New World, stars as Chief Yellow Hawk’s daughter, but she only has a handful of lines and is somewhat wasted as a simple background character. And Wes Studi, who’s proved to be an impeccable performer in a variety of films, doesn’t get a chance to show his range as Yellow Hawk is somewhat sidelined in favor of focusing on how the violence and displacement have effected Bale’s Blocker and Pike’s Rose. No doubt Joe and Rose’s stories are interesting and compelling, but there persists this nagging feeling that their characters are somewhat co-opting this story.
Moreover, at over two hours long, the deliberate and methodical pacing can be trying at times. This is a film in which there are many hushed dialogue scenes around a campfire, and one imagines another pass at the edit could streamline the picture into something that moves better. Even as a Western, Hostiles tests the patience of its audience.
The languid pacing does translate into showcases for the performances, namely from Bale, Pike, and Ben Foster as a homicidal prisoner they pick up along the way, and indeed Bale unsurprisingly delivers an intense and complicated turn as Joe’s arc ebbs and flows, and Pike continues to prove her tremendous talents with a challenging performance as a woman suffering some of the worst trauma imaginable. It’s weird to still consider Rosamund Pike underrated after landing an Oscar nomination for her towering performance in Gone Girl, but it still feels like she’s being undervalued.