At the beginning of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, we meet men who are haggard, war-worn, and tired of killing… and then watch those same men kill people for two hours.
Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker of the United States Calvary. He’s too old for this shit and ready to retire. His last detail involves escorting an ill Cheyenne War chief/ former adversary (Wes Studi) and family to spend his final days in his tribal land. Along the way they pick up a widow (Rosamund Pike) who recently saw her entire family slaughtered. They soon realize they all need one another to survive the many hostiles, native and otherwise, that they will encounter along the way.
Despite the journey framing the events that happen en route, there’s little cause and effect to the narrative in Hostiles, making much of the action feel random and the deaths senseless. It seems to posit that the West was just all killing, all the time, lacking in any kind of irony. In an early scene, Blocker is sensitive to fellow soldier (Rory Cochrane) who’s suffering PTSD and has had his guns taken away. We get a sense of their history. Like Eastwood and Freeman’s characters in Unforgiven, they have a bloody past, but they’re ready to leave it behind them. After all, it’s a hell of a thing killing a man. Shortly thereafter, Blocker chooses his friend to accompany him on the mission, and he seems happy to get his guns back. We’re supposed to feel the weight of the many deaths that follow, but it’s hard when they’re so relentless.
What’s somewhat interesting and timely about the story is it’s depiction at the earliest attempts at Reconciliation. It’s by the orders of the President that Blocker is escorting the Chief, who was a prisoner for many years, back to his homeland. The subject of their displacement is brought up several times, and they must learn to overcome their differences to accomplish a shared goal. The film tries to approach the matter from a place of sensitivity and understanding, but still ends up feeling rather naive and reductive.
Flaws aside, there’s still a lot to enjoy in Hostiles, particularly for fans of the genre. The film features some magnificently timeless Western imagery captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. Cooper never seems to tire of gorgeous shots of sun dappled horses crossing various landscapes during magic hour, and fortunately, neither do I. Cooper also shows how well he can handle action, staging several exciting scenes that you’ll wish lasted longer.
Hostiles features a big supporting cast of excellent character actors including Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Adam Beach and Bill Camp, but due mostly to the consistently growing body count, few of them stick around very long. We do however get one of Bale’s better performances in recent years. We’ve seen baby face Bale, buff Bale, now we’re beginning to see battle-worn Bale. He’s already donned many hats in his career, and this feels like the beginning of the next phase which will see an older, somewhat grizzled actor in hopefully some pretty juicy roles.
As uneven as this entry to the ever-growing canon of Western films may be, Hostiles has plenty to keep the viewer engaged, though it does feel a little off-target at times.