Great contemporary Westerns are few and far in between. They either come from a big time director like Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, are remade from classics like the Coens’ True Grit and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma or strike at just the right time like David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.
Writer-director Scott Cooper has neared the genre with the tangentially related Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, so it’s not much of a surprise that he’s the next to deliver.
Hostiles, following Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he escorts Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) across the country despite hating him for killing many of his comrades, is brutal from minute one until the very end. But the brutality, the soul crushing violence serves narrative purpose. The film ruminates on the hatred that builds between these intruding white men and the Native Americans fighting for their lands, and Cooper pulls off a tricky moral balance in placing a white man, full of hate, at the head of his story.
Cooper evokes empathy for Blocker and for Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) through the unfathomable violence that we see them encounter, while periodically and carefully invoking a sense of history to temper viewers’ full allegiance to these characters and force audiences to confront the long term, less visible violence that Yellow Hawk, his family and his people have faced.
The turn of Blocker’s morality is a fascinating one. Another of the underlying themes of the film is in how we follow duty, where duty leads us and where duty ends. The army men are often given direct orders to further the genocide of the Native Americans, and Blocker believes that this separates him from the others who just kill to kill.
But in taking on a duty that is in such direct tension with his hatred, one that the film contextualizes with violence, Blocker almost becomes like the audience, slowly forced to confront his shortsightedness of simply following duty ordered by men — and Cooper’s climactic moment for Blocker is precise and perfect in regard to the character’s arc.
Hostiles is slow and meditative, but there’s still a fire in its pacing. The beats are perfectly doled out and hit hard, creating a pulsating feel to the film’s progression. And when those moments hit, they’re shot hauntingly by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, whether that be in low angle close-ups of broken men or in Deakins-esque long shots of heart-wrenching sights. Layer in Max Richter’s swelling score, and the film becomes emotionally overwhelming in a very effective way.
At times, though, Cooper does overwrite beats. So much of Hostiles works, and sticks with us long after we’ve left the theater, because of how quiet and subtle it all is — and it seems that Cooper is, sometimes, not confident in his ability to sell those quiet moments, causing him to indulge in laying out his point a bit too clearly.
But even then, that doesn’t become much of an issue due to every single actor performing at the top of their game. Rosamund Pike plays the character who encounters the most, and the most shocking tragedy in the film, and she turns all of herself over to the role to portray the trauma that the violence causes. Wes Studi’s role is, in terms of dialogue, small, but Cooper often frames him in close-up and Studi commands the screen.
And Christian Bale turns in one of his greatest performances, which is saying something when considering the career that he’s had. Similarly to Studi, Bale is riveting in his quietude, as he’s somehow able to portray his character’s interiority without saying a word. And when he speaks, it’s often soft and subdued, but there’s a consistent underlying intensity, achieved through how Bale interacts physically with his counterpart in the scene and how he often pushes the emotional work from his mouth to his eyes. It’s truly the sign of a master, and it’s a performance that renders Hostiles a brilliant Western.
Featured image via Entertainment Studios.