Updated: Feb 5, 2020
The theatrical western has become a rare breed. Despite some recent successes on the small screen (AMC’s Hell on Wheels and HBO’s Deadwood and Westworld), they are few and far between on the big screen. I am a pretty big fan of the western, so I get excited whenever one happens to be playing at one of the local theaters. I usually go opening weekend and, since there are so few of them nowadays, hope that the limited opportunities for westerns has not been wasted on a bad one. It is just the first weekend of 2018 and we are already lucky enough to get a western on the big screen. And, even luckier, it is a good one.
Hostiles, set in 1892, is about Army Captain Joe Blocker (three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Christian Bale), a ruthless and merciless Indian fighter. He is ordered by his commanding officer to escort an old enemy of his, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, a veteran of many westerns), who has been imprisoned for years and is now dying of cancer, back to his ancestral land in Wyoming. Blocker is incredibly resistant to the idea, but he is not given much choice. At the beginning of their journey, they encounter a woman, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike, a Best Actress Oscar nominee in 2015 for Gone Girl), whose family was slaughtered by Comanche in the opening scene. The rest of the film follows Joe, his men, Rosalie, the Chief and his family as they make their treacherous journey.
There is some action in Hostiles, but this is not an action movie. The drama really takes place inside the head of Blocker as he deals with a mission he finds very distasteful. He has personally seen Yellow Hawk kill some of his friends and has no interest in making this man’s final days more pleasant. However, Blocker himself is no innocent. It is established right at the top that he is proud of his attacks on the natives, which has including killing innocent women and children. He sees them as the hostiles, but the film sees little to no difference between the two sides.
Blocker eventually comes to consider this very idea for himself. His awakening is assisted, in large part, by the presence of Rosalie. A broken woman when he first meets her, she is given strength by Blocker’s kindness and he becomes protective of her. Much like the rest of the film, their relationship is developed subtly and without a lot of dialogue. These are people who are not well-practiced at expressing themselves verbally. Their emotions are just below the surface and those unexpressed emotions, especially Blocker’s are what drive the story.
Hostiles (127 minutes without the end credits) has been written and directed by Scott Cooper (based on a manuscript written by the late Donald Stewart in the 1980s). It is his fourth film as a director (he wrote three of those). His films have a very deliberate pace to them. He takes his time with his characters. In this case, his story is about a military man seeing what he has believed his whole life questioned as the times begin to change. Cooper does not use a traditional western, good guys vs bad guys, formula. All of his key characters reside mainly in gray areas (though some of them shade closer to one side or the other).
Hostiles is much closer to later westerns, such as Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western Unforgiven, in terms of style and tone. This is not a film that looks nostalgically at people like Joe Blocker as heroes. Granted, we are looking at things with today’s eyes, not 1892 eyes. But it uses this viewpoint to deconstruct things that we, much like Blocker, once took for granted. Hostiles will likely not go down in history as one of the great westerns. And it is not what people tend to think of when they think of westerns. It is a thoughtful and methodical character study. And it is a very good film.
4 out of 5
Christian Bale as Captain Joseph Blocker
Rosamund Pike as Rosalie Quaid
Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk
Adam Beach as Black Hawk
Jesse Plemons as Lieutenant Rudy Kidder
Rory Cochrane as Master Sergeant Thomas Metz
Ben Foster as Sergeant Charles Willis
Johnathan Majors as Corporal Henry Woodsen
Timothée Chalamet as Private Phillipe DeJardin
John Benjamin Hickey as Royce Tolan
Stephen Lang as Colonel Abraham Biggs
Written and Directed by Scott Cooper