Director: Scott Cooper
Screenplay: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Timothée Chalamet
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Scott Cooper is a genuinely talented and efficient filmmaker bordering on great, but since his debut with the excellent Crazy Heart back in 2009, he’s mostly worked in the field of atmospheric low-key crime dramas and thrillers, where the overall ability of the performers at hand outweighs the amount of content that is given to them.
Hostiles is his latest work, a dark period western weighed down with an atmosphere of guilt and remorse that opens with a mercilessly cruel sequence involving the scalping and murder of Rosalie Quaid’s (Rosamund Pike) family at the hands of a Comanche war party and continues on a downward spiral of violence begetting violence.
Although primarily following the character Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) and his party in their journey to escort dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana, the film also wants to act as another 21st century revisionist piece that recontextualises the conflict between settlers and the native Americans with an aura of grey morality – this being in the soldiers following through with murder as occupation, and natives as a form of retribution and defence – that doesn’t entirely pay off.
Though much time is spent on dedicating itself to the idea that monstrous acts of violence are being performed by both sides in this ongoing struggle for the land and its resources, what it reinforces in dialogue and theme it never manages to unite with coherent growth or character definition. Blocker is mortified by the very idea of escorting a man who slaughtered his friends alive across the country to a new life, and as the film progresses he grows to accept them by putting aside his racial prejudices but he’s never given any valid reason to do so beyond his expected narrative arc.
He might communicate in their language, but the film never justifies the change in strong enough ways since Blocker’s emotional burden builds much of his character. Supposedly this might come from Pike’s character, who undergoes a trauma of her own and feels like she should be the main character, but they share few lines and moments together to give an explanation for a relationship that might be blossoming between them. Besides this, the Cheyenne family in their party are afforded humanity and agency but don’t have characters of their own beyond becoming pieces to force Blocker down his arc, which is troubling given the film’s stance toward drawing the Native Americans as figures of equal wrongdoing and humanity.
But behind these characters are the performances of an undeniably impressive cast. Bale is delivering some terrifically humble and powerful work as Blocker, silent but hiding a ferocity and saddled pain of the many lives lost under his protection and service. They pick up strays as the party grows in size, and characters are introduced and dispatched with swift brutality. Pike is arresting in her earlier stages as a disturbed and lost figure, but her more interesting development is refused to serve Bale’s arc instead. Actors such as Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons and Peter Mullan leave their impact, and while he is sidelined all too often Wes Studi makes good on his performance as the sickly imprisoned war chief.
What keeps the film even more engaging is the deeply affectionate direction by Scott Cooper. The film and its action scenes are tough and blunt as hardened ground, a nasty and violent vision of America pushing itself into the industrial age. The location work is beautiful, with fantastic camera work photographing the landscapes and scenes playing out in ways that are subtly different to many in its genre, such as Pike and Bale’s reflections on faith in a godless world while they sit in a green field against a dusty backdrop.
Aiding the sense of awe is an apocalyptic score by Max Richter that echoes through the ridges and canyons of the landscape with deep earthy groans of pain and sorrow. Produced by using Turkish musician Görkem Şen’s yaybahar – a large acoustic instrument of which there is only one in the world – it’s a strange and deathly feeling that is given off by its power as you feel this journey is leading to an inexorable and morbid conclusion.
It doesn’t bring much new to the status of the revisionist western in the 21st century, and problematically corners itself with a misguided narrative and attempts to employ its themes, but by shedding the ‘neo’ from its status Hostiles works as a hard and commanding piece of filmmaking with some fantastic performances guiding it and an all-encompassing sense of mood.