It is not easy to get a Western made these days, particularly one that has serious ideas. Fortunately, writer-director Scott Cooper found financing for Hostiles, a film with much more on its mind than the pitfalls of the well-worn, currently not-often-attempted genre that in this case tries to make a case for racial understanding against all odds.
Cooper is an actor-turned-director whose past films include the Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, Black Mass and Out of the Furnace, the latter of which like Hostiles stars Christian Bale. Here, Bale toplines in a quiet but powerfully moving turn as embittered Capt. Joseph Blocker who, against his will, is assigned to accompany a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) back to his native Montana burial grounds. Blocker resists, not only because of strong prejudices acquired over a career fighting Native Americans, but also because he knows this is basically a PR stunt ordered by the U.S. President. Still, he has no choice and reluctantly takes on the mission of accompanying the cancer-stricken chief and his family across the perilous terrain. Along the way they pick up a strong woman, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), whose entire family has been wiped out in an attack by Comanches.
As I say in my video review above though, at the heart of this journey is a slow move towards understanding and an acceptance of differences that have created a lifetime of walls for Blocker. Through Bale’s magnificent portrayal we see in his eyes everything we need to know without ever resorting to acting tricks of any kind. Bale is the rare kind of film star who doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to create a fully dimensional, flawed but human man on his own course to discovery. He carries this film on his shoulders and never strikes a single false note.
Pike is nicely cast as Rosalie Quaid, the pioneering woman who loses it all and then has to learn to live again on different terms in a very violent world. The early attack scene on her family is harrowing and vividly presented by Cooper, who doesn’t stint on the brutality but never lets it become gratuitous. If anything, this film in many ways is a homage to masters of the American Western like John Ford and Howard Hawks; in fact, there is a direct tribute to Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers, the film Hostiles most recalled for me. The major difference is Cooper, working from a manuscript by the late Donald E. Steward, inserts numerous ideas and issues that will connect to the America of today. Hostiles is nothing if not relevant for a country that still wants to hate and can’t seem to bridge the divide that continues to rip us apart. In Hostiles, set in 1892, there is a road map to redemption and acceptance, however difficult that may be.
Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk is also playing a man who finds it hard to change a lifetime of attitude, and this veteran actor is excellent as always playing a proud Native American coming to terms with his imminent death. Among the fine supporting cast, Ben Foster stands out as a prisoner picked up along the way and headed for a court martial for wiping out a group of Native Americans, as does Rory Cochrane as Metz, a haunted associate of Blocker’s. Q’orianka Kilcher also has her moments as Yellow Hawk’s daughter-in-law, particularly in scenes with Pike as they endure more violence when kidnapped by trappers. Call Me By Your Name sensation Timothee Chalamet also turns up but doesn’t get much of a chance to make an impact. Particularly effective are scenes played in the native Cheyenne language by Bale and Studi, which gives the film a further stamp of authenticity.
It’s a grim story overall, one that doesn’t cut corners, but this journey from New Mexico (where most of it was filmed) to Montana has been stunningly photographed by Cooper regular Masanobu Takayanagi, with tight editing from Oscar-winner Tom Cross (Whiplash). Cooper certainly serves up the action sequences expected from this genre but isn’t afraid to play his film at a deliberately paced tempo that serves the effective and affecting story well.
Producers are Cooper, Ken Kao and John Lesher. Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures picked up the film for distribution after its successful debuts at Telluride and Toronto and releases it beginning Friday.
Do you plan to see Hostiles? Let us know what you think.