Hostiles (2017) Movie Review by John Walsh

Hostiles

Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Scott Cooper (written for the screen by), Donald E. Stewart (manuscript)
Stars: Scott Shepherd, Rosamund Pike, Ava Cooper

Scott Cooper has crafted a magnificent and rather beautiful looking western with Hostiles. It takes place in 1892 at the tail end of the American Indian wars, following the homeward bound journey of a dying Indian Chief and the reluctant US soldier tasked with getting him there.

The film opens in the most brutal of ways and I mean absolutely brutal. Essentially, a white family, living an isolated existence in the middle of New Mexico are slaughtered by a terrifying looking Comanche war party. The father is shot dead first and scalped, his young two children are next and finally his new born baby. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the family’s mother, witnesses the entire atrocity, barely surviving herself.

Immediately afterwards, we see similar brutality this time at the hands of Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) and his US cavalrymen. They torture Apache Native Americans in front of their family, before taking them to Fort Berringer, where many of their people have been tortured and locked up without trial or release. Joe Blocker who is the heroic protagonist of the film, incidentally, is also a racist borderline war criminal and is heard disdainfully describing the Natives as ‘Ants’.

Not only do these two scenes perfectly set the tone of the film going forward but they also help enlighten the viewer about the atrocities regularly committed and the violent nature of the war being waged.

Upon his arrival at the fort. Blocker is almost immediately assigned an escorting mission by Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) that is a complete and utter affront to him, not to mention his reputation as an Indian killing specialist. Why? Because it involves taking his arch nemesis, the cancer stricken Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to the Valley of the Bears in Montana. President Marshall has personally authorised this release and so being the only qualified man for the job and facing a reduced pension or court marshall if it’s refused, he’s forced into doing it.

We see the complex nature of the man after this when he disappears out alone, visibly pained and seems to contemplate shooting himself.

The near entirety of Hostiles running time is dedicated solely to the treacherous journey from New Mexico to Montana. The physical and emotional. The close quarters relationship between the chiefs people and the cavalrymen, the realisation they’re not monsters, bringing guilt and penance to the fore. The ever changing dynamics between Blocker and his men, Chief Yellow Hawk, his family and Rosalie are fascinatingly highlighted throughout the trip.

Deeply ingrained prejudice and intolerance isn’t an easy thing to shake however. The chief and his family are chained early on and Blocker, who’s able to speak the natives language fluently, is fuelled with racial hatred, its given him a purpose and helped shape his life. But even by the films 1892 timeline, said intolerance is already outdated and viewed upon disdainfully by the same government that fostered it. Blocker initially loathes Yellow Hawk, a man that he holds responsible for killing many of his friends. Eventually though, he does find a begrudging respect for his opposite as the journey progresses.

Shortly after heading out, they stumble upon Rosalie still clutching her dead baby. A rare sincere and touching moment amongst unrelenting violence.

The chief and his family are for the most part surprisingly kind and tolerant in the presence of a man who has also no doubt murdered countless numbers of their people. If he harboured similar deep set hatred then it was hidden extremely well. Rosalie, like the rest of the primary characters, had her own distinctive arc that intertwined with the common purpose of reaching the mountainous Montana. The film followed her recovery from shock and mind numbing grief that really threatened to consume her.

There’s so much death, sorrow and grief for both sides of the American/Indian divide in Hostiles with fresh graves being dug at nearly every turn and this serves to bind the strange bedfellows that are Chief Yellow Hawk and Captain Joe Blocker together. A fact which is perfectly highlighted with Blockers stirring, emotional “Don’t look back my friend. Go in a good way. A part of me dies with you” line.

And it’s through a combination of the aforementioned group dynamics and each character’s personal demons that the primary themes are intelligently explored in this film. There’s some definite satire sprinkled in there too that seeks to show the damaging effects of xenophobia, ignorance and racism. All issues which frankly are still a problem today. But more importantly, it does this whilst bringing a conflict from over a century ago into modernity.

Christian Bale is outstanding. I’m not quite sure why he didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Blocker had obviously taken to pushing his emotions inwards, having been through the emotional wringer and is clearly suffering from some form of PTSD. He goes on a emotionally powerful, transformative, journey of redemption, that brings back his humanity. He has some incredibly tender moments in amongst the violence and profanity ladened outbursts. I honestly rate it as one of his best performances.

Rosamund Pike is great too. The loss that Quaid suffers is beyond all comprehension and she imbues the character with real palpable grief and emotion. I did prefer these earlier moments of grief and she definitely faded in importance as the plot moved along. Wes Studi was decent enough. Admittedly, his character had more of a superfluous supporting role in what was pretty much the Christian Bale show. But in fairness, he was a man suffering from terminal cancer and therefore a meatier action packed role would have made little sense.

The supporting cast was actually incredible when you look at it. Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet, Jonathan Majors, Rory Cochrane and Ben Foster. It felt like they all had their moments in the film and with that lineup you know you’re onto a winner.

The film is a real visual masterpiece too. Masanobu Takayanagi has proven himself to be an incredibly gifted cinematographer and his work on this film must be applauded. A good 80% of the film was shot outside in the wild which must have challenging to say the least, but he handled it well and his subtle use of light in night scenes especially was very cool. The gradual change in scenery from the flat dry, brownish terrain of New Mexico to the lush green and mountainous Montana was perfectly captured. Some of the wide shots were jaw dropping.

Max Richter scored the film and it’s excellent as you’d expect. The man is one of the best.

Overall though, Hostiles is a brilliant character driven western that’s gritty, brutal and absolutely doesn’t shy away from highlighting the many atrocities and violent nature of the American/Indian war. There’s a couple of brilliant performances, amidst a plethora of solid showings and I highly enjoyed it from start to finish. I’m perplexed at the lack of recognition given at this years Academy Awards for a film that I feel is better than many of the filler nominations.

I would I highly recommend giving it a watch.

Rating: 4/5

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