In Hostiles, a reluctant, moustachioed Army captain agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory. Scott Cooper directs from his own screenplay. Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi.
Nothing sets the tone quite like a scalping. In Hostiles, the new film written and directed by Scott Cooper, that tone is sombre. The scalp belongs to Wesley Quaid (Scott Shepherd), a homesteader in 1892 New Mexico. An opening sequence sees Comanche warriors thunder over the hazy horizon. They butcher Wesley and his three kids. His wife, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), survives by hiding in the woods.
It’s a hell of an opening – one reminiscent of John Ford’s The Searchers. Hostiles has plenty of other things going for it. It’s an extraordinarily handsome film. The sprawling frontier is gorgeous, but entirely without empathy. The scene immediately following the Quaid family massacre is one in which Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) rounds up an Apache family and transports them to an American fort. There, many other Native Americans are imprisoned, and have been for years, many without trial.
The nod to The Searchers is a ruse. Hostiles has less in common with the classic westerns by directors like Ford and Howard Hawks than it does revisionist westerns by the likes of Robert Aldrich. Morally simplistic notions of good and evil are stripped away. In their place are trenchant, compelling evocations of bitter hatred. The landscape, burnished by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, has been poisoned by decades of colonial warfare against America’s indigenous people. Both opening sequences are gory, unpleasant, and near-wordless. But they speak loud and clear.
The problem Hostiles has is that while it speaks the right language, it doesn’t know how to communicate the words to those who don’t. Cooper attempts to write and direct his way around cliché. But he falls into the well-trodden quagmire of noble Indians bestowing wisdom on their American occupiers. Cooper imparts knowledge with brute force. Rifle triggers. Dagger hilts. The classes are messy; the lessons go unlearned.
This is expected from the man responsible for grim, gritty work like Black Mass and Out of the Furnace. Bale’s Captain Blocker has a similar problem. He understands the language, but he doesn’t like how it tastes in his mouth. As a veteran of America’s on-going wars with the newly-settled West, he’s one of the few soldiers to understand the Native’s tongue and territory almost as well as they do. Because of this, he’s selected to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief, back to his tribal lands in Montana – an assignment he would initially rather be court-martialed for refusing than actually carry out.
Yellow Hawk and his family have been kept imprisoned by the U.S. for years; Blocker has fought the Indians frequently, and has been a witness to and a victim of their violence. Both men deeply and passionately despise each other. That they’re both so good at communicating this is the biggest strength of Hostiles. Bale’s mouth is mostly covered by a droopy handlebar moustache that makes him look like one of the Village People. (Were this released last year, Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot would have had a rival.) But his eyes are terrifyingly haunted. His cheeks are flushed. He radiates rage and resentment; years of pain – inflicting and receiving it – flicker in the blackness of his pupils.
Studi is a fine actor who has had a long career – much of it playing stoic warriors like Yellow Hawk. The way Blocker describes the chief is at odds with how Hostiles presents him. The talk is of brutal carnage in the aftermath of Cheyenne battles, but Studi spends most of his time sat on a horse dispensing pithy aphorisms. Hostiles is quite fascinated by the idea of two embittered men divided by the harsh trenches of warfare. It has a 135-minute running time to paint that picture, but only manages to colour the margins. Blocker’s obvious and inevitable realisation that Yellow Hawk and his fellow travellers are probably alright is the emotional dénouement of an overlong film that lacks nuance and depth.
What Hostiles doesn’t lack for is gunfights, particularly in an aimless second half wherein Blocker and his men are given an additional task: to take a soldier accused of murder (Ben Foster) to the town where he is to be tried. By this point, Rosalie is travelling with them. An overarching theme of the film is emotional detachment stemming from terrible trauma. Whatever it has to say on the subject of PTSD on the American frontier is somewhat muddied by how the trauma is foregrounded at the expense of the stress. Bale, Studi and Pike are all lending terrifically committed performances to people who lack any sense of shade or subtle ambiguity. They’re containers for suffering, which seems to be the prism through which everything in Hostiles is filtered.
Like all of Cooper’s films, Hostiles is one with complex ideas but surprisingly simple conclusions. This is a story of grim men – and grim women – grappling with their place in a world that is bleak and bigoted. As visually stunning and technically well-constructed as it is, and as worthy a theme and dramatic premise as it might possess, it is nonetheless meandering, underwritten, overlong, and, eventually, unsatisfactorily realised. Like it’s tortured and tormented lead character it understands the language – it just doesn’t have much to say.