‘Hostiles’ is a purposely grim, well-acted but incomplete western
Written and directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Adam Beach
“Hostiles” – “He’s a butcher.” – Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale)
“Then the two of you should get along just fine.” – Jeremiah Wilks (Bill Camp)
For decades, Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Bale) has lived his adult life immersed in violence via his chosen profession in the U.S. Calvary. After spending a career hunting down and killing Native Americans, he has become hardened and emotionally inhibited - something less than human, without a hint of light or angelic joy - after causing and witnessing so much death.
His commanding officer Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) gives Joseph a new assignment. Actually “gives” is not the right word, because he forces the unwilling captain to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana, to let the man die with dignity on his homeland. Joseph vehemently opposes this particular mission, because Yellow Hawk is a lifelong enemy, a “butcher” as he states.
Chief Yellow Hawk feels the same way about Capt. Blocker, but after seven years in a U.S. Calvary jail and in the twilight of his life, he seems at peace.
Writer/director Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace” (2013), “Black Mass” (2015)) does not shy away from dark material, and here, he dives headfirst into his bleak picture, not necessarily filled with death, but lathered in the stink of past casualties and the brutality of some ugly, on-screen ones. Certainly, horrible slices of everyday life littered the American West during the 19th century, and Cooper offers an unflinching portrayal of the said period in 1892.
Bale is unflinching as well. As Capt. Blocker, he delivers convincing somber tones of regret and seething anger, as a man currently living with layers of violence protecting a vulnerable human core, and the film’s main arc successfully captures his journey towards - possibly - shedding this hardened shell. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) might be a person to tap into his humanity. Blocker, his men and Chief Yellow Hawk’s family unexpectedly meet Rosalie on their northern trek. Tragically, she is currently churning with demons of her own, as she suffered a fate that is very reminiscent of the opening scene from Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976). Pike gives a devastating and heartbreaking supporting performance that tosses several damaging daggers into one’s soul, as her sorrow pours off the screen. The hope is that she can summon some lasting strength from the bowels of despair.
While Joseph’s and Rosalie’s spiritual journeys stand as two tall pillars in the film, Chief Yellow Hawk’s and his family’s – Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), and Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief) – stories are sadly not explored. The picture falls down in this space, because several individual narratives should be expressed, not just two. At a minimum, Yellow Hawk’s feelings should have been articulated, but outside a few lines of personal reflection, the audience learns next to nothing about him. Meanwhile, Black Hawk, Elk Woman, Living Woman, and Little Bear are just along for the ride.
With the film’s 2-hour 13-minute runtime, Cooper offers plenty of opportunities for insight and character growth for these supporting players. Instead, he wanders into a storyline cul-de-sac at the film’s 74th minute with an oddly-placed cameo. The cameo and associated subplot serve very little purpose, except to illustrate the captain’s mindset from his distant past, which actually is not terribly different from his present. In fact, this tangent – inserted more than halfway into “Hostiles” – further calls out the picture’s already-existing pacing issues.
These pacing issues, however, are somewhat offset by gorgeous and glorious moments of prairies, mountain trails and campfires underneath the stars, as Cooper thoughtfully captures the beauty and allure of the region under tranquil peace. These occasional serene moments are also soon paired with bloodshed, but that was the reality of the time that still arguably loiters in 2017. “Hostiles” effectively reflects a grim sliver of the country’s history that deserves to be told, but Cooper only recounts half the story. Mind you, he does not “butcher” the film but wanders into repeated, circular themes, and ultimately, the work feels incomplete.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.