Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Scott Wilson
Runtime: 2 hrs 14 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 4 January 2018
Synopsis: 1892, New Mexico - legendary Army captain Joseph J. Blocker (Bale) undertakes one final mission before retirement: escort Yellow Hawk (Studi) - a dying Cheyenne war chief - and his family back to sacred tribal lands. After 20 years of violent struggle, this gesture of peace is as unthinkable as it is harrowing. Together they battle against a punishing landscape and the brutality of men alike, coming to the rescue of a young widow (Pike) amidst the carnage of her murdered family. Two great warriors, once rivals across the battlefield, must learn to trust each other and find peace in an unforgiving land. A heroic odyssey of survival, HOSTILES becomes a story not about the miles travelled nor the battles fought, but the journey towards respect, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Whereas it used to be us-versus-them, ‘Hostiles’ represents yet another example of a new breed of revisionist Westerns that challenge earlier notions of white man superiority. Set at the tail end of the Indian Wars, this bleak and bone-chilling Western sees the distinguished US Army officer Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) being forced to come to terms with the genocide he has been committing against the Native Americans over the course of a road trip he is ordered to lead. That trip is to escort the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to his tribal lands up north, where he hopes to spend his dying days before succumbing to cancer.
It’s not hard to understand why Blocker puts up such a vigorous resistance when his orders are first conveyed – after all, not only had he spent years hunting down types like Yellow Hawk, he had also seen many of his good friends and partners die at the hands of these very types – and it is no wonder that he has his fellow officers handcuff Yellow Hawk and his son (Adam Beach) as soon as they are comfortably out of sight of his commanding officer (Stephen Lang). Yet, as you would expect, Blocker’s own deep-seated beliefs about the Apaches will be challenged over the course of the journey, which ends up being for him one of reconciliation and redemption.
The first agent of this transformation is Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a grieving widow whose husband and three children had been brutally murdered by Comanches in the opening sequence. Rosalee is expectedly shocked to see and hear of Blocker’s company, but her circumstance spurs the compassion of Yellow Hawk’s clan, which slowly but surely changes her impression of them. At the same time, the reappearance of the same Comanche war band that had slaughtered her family gives Blocker and Yellow Hawk a common enemy to unite against, and more significantly the opportunity to overcome their simmering suspicion with mutual trust.
The second agent of that change is Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster), an Army officer who has been charged with the indiscriminate killing of natives and is due to hang. While stopping to rest at a fort commanded by a former buddy, Blocker is asked to lead Charles to the gallows for his execution, a favour which he agrees to on account of the former’s hospitality. Along the way, Charles so pointedly highlights how what he has been condemned for was no different from what Blocker had spent his entire career doing, forcing Blocker to realise again how times and policies have changed. To be sure, Charles doesn’t feature as much in the narrative as Rosalee does, but his presence further illuminates the third agent of Blocker’s conversion.
That final agent is Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), a loyal comrade of Blocker who delivers a meandering but nonetheless meaningful monologue early on about how spilled guts and righteous retribution were the stuff of the good days. Thomas’s role remains largely in the background with the rest of the cavalry for the first two acts of the film, but his disillusion at the end of an era finally turns into enlightenment in the final act, where we see him atoning for his past sins in a heroic yet tragic manner. Having established their camaraderie at the start, it isn’t difficult to imagine why Blocker would be thus moved by Thomas’s eventual fate.
Based off an unproduced screenplay by the late Donald Stewart (best known for scripting ‘The Hunt for Red October’), writer-director Scott Cooper plays all that out deliberately over two-hours plus, which admittedly can be challenging for less-patient viewers. Cooper uses that time to allow both the beauty of the landscape and the violence of its inhabitants sink in – this is after all, a very different time from the one we are living in now, and one prone to misguided romanticisation – while giving his actors plenty of space to flesh out their respective characters. Combined with Max Richter’s brooding score, Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi turns the wilderness of sparse, stormy scrubland to lush, heavenly mountain ranges into sheer majesty, and the images are often stunningly composed.
Just as impressive is Bale’s understated performance as the embittered Blocker, whose part redemptive, part recuperative journey never strikes a false note. His co-stars are equally excellent, and in particular, there is moving chemistry between Bale and Pike’s traumatised widow. Putting the focus of the narrative on both their characters though diminishes somewhat the significance of Studi’s character or for that matter the Native Americans in their company, and criticism that the latter end up being no more than ciphers are not unjustified. Notwithstanding, the veteran actor Studi proves excellent as always playing a proud Apache leader coming to terms with his imminent death.
Truth be told, it is not easy to get a Western made these days, in large part because it seems difficult to find an appreciative audience of a genre that used to be a mainstay of Hollywood cinema. But Cooper’s film is a full-bodied (and even full-bloodied, seeing as how it doesn’t shy from moments of unflinching violence) Western, armed with an affecting story, haunting characters and great acting. Sure, Cooper could certainly have upped the tempo so that things unfold at a less languid pace, but that time is well-spent reflecting on the racial divide that manifests itself in a different but no less virulent form today. In that regard, the movie’s ambiguous title is highly appropriate, premised as it is not on us-versus-them but rather on the antagonism that tears our social fabric, an antagonism that could exist on either side.
(Lean, spare and deiberately-paced but effective, affecting and meaningful, this revisionist Western is a solid addition to a genre which seems all but forgotten these days)
Review by Gabriel Chong