Hostiles, written and directed by Scott Cooper, offers a solemn, introspective look at a transitional point in American history. Not only was America changing; shifting towards a new way of life, but the people who had been moulded by the old ways, also had to change, or be left behind. Taking on damaged, seemingly irredeemable individuals, the film takes us on a journey that is meaningful and full of hardships – all in the hopes of finding a way to heal. This might be Scott Cooper’s best work to date and I’m eager to talk in detail about this incredible film he’s created. On with the review.
Set in 1852, we follow Army Captain, Joseph J. Blocker – played by Christian Bale – who reluctantly agrees to escort Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk – played by Wes Studi – and his family, back to their homeland in Montana, where he can then make preparations for his coming death (as cancer consumes his body). Captain Blocker is reluctant, because during the bloodiest times of his career, it was Chief Yellow Hawk that was one of his greatest enemies. The long and dangerous journey will be one full of redemption, forgiveness, peace, death, and possible new beginnings.
The time of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ running wild around a seemingly lawless land are coming to an end. Native American’s are no longer being seen as only savages that must be wiped out or imprisoned. America’s changing and so are the people within it. For Captain Blocker, this a difficult new path to come to terms with. His life has been one of serving the army; fighting the Native American people; being witness too and a part of truly horrendous acts. Hostiles is a film that tackles much. While its primary plot is simple, it is the characters within it and the themes that make up their lives, that guide the film towards moments that are harsh, revealing and powerful.
Our primary window into this newly forming landscape; one where the ideals of the wild west are dying out, is a man who was brought up and formed by the now antiquated ways of thinking… and living. The captain is a closed off man; he has seen and done unthinkable things and it has taken the soul out from within him. I was intimidated by him… I feared how ruthless he seemed. But this is a story of redemption, of rebirth and he and the many people who accompany him on the escort mission are all people who in some way find their place in the new world – it is not always a good place, but for them, it’s what seems like the right place.
Christian Bale delivers a quiet, yet forceful performance. His presence is felt in nearly every scene, even when he is politely conversing with fellow officers or people in need, there is an intensity that emanates from him. He went from someone who I feared to someone who I felt safe around, as who better to take on the savagery of the open plains, than a man who had been a savage himself? The captain was a character that seemed limitless in the depths he had to be explored and along with a script that never stopped giving, Bale was given all the opportunities an actor could wish for, when it comes to the handling and exploration of a character. His story of redemption and new beginnings was one handled with poise and care. The film also reinforces just how strong and dependable of an actor, Christian Bale is, and I hope to see some recognition for the subtle, yet outstanding work he delivers in Hostiles.
But it isn’t just Captain Blocker and Christian Bale’s performance, nope. Hostiles boasts a cast of brilliant actors, who all take on characters that are plagued by their own demons. Like I said earlier: Hostiles tackles much, and the amount of time that is given to a fair number of the characters in the film is staggering.
You have Rosalie Quaid – played by Rosamund Pike – who brings unbearable loss, but also hope to the film. Her story is tragic but not without a sweet, reassuring end. There’s Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who is in some ways a mirror to Captain Blocker. He was on the opposite side of the battlefield, taking part in the same atrocities, but his family pulled him back towards the light, where as the captain never had such fortune (I could spend a whole separate blog post exploring and dissecting these two characters and dualities that exist between them, it’s that rich in offerings). And Wes Studi is one of those veteran actors who always brings a level of class and experience to his performances. And then there’s Master Sergeant Thomas Metz – played by Rory Cochrane – who next to Bale and his character was my favourite in the film. Cochrane even steals one-or-two scenes from Bale, and delivers a performance that was heart-breaking and truly unforgettable.
I could go on listing and breaking down the continual offerings of characters the film has, and the depths to them that are mined for powerful, poignant scenes. The dynamics that exist between many of the characters also help shape the themes of the film. Their histories help to enlighten us to certain character’s pasts and also help with their journeys to a new life or peace of mind. It’s one big melting pot of troubled, nuanced individuals, who all play a part in making the experience of the film forever memorable and fulfilling.
I was also surprised at the number of plot strands that weaved in and out of the film; whether it was newly introduced characters that shifted the whole dynamic of the journey, or it was the threat of being attacked at any moment by a violent group, unrelenting group of Native Americans. Almost none of these subplots played out how I expected, and they continually breathed new life into the film. Which I found helped with the motion of the film, as it can feel meandering at times.
This was a film that I quickly and gladly gave my attention over to. But that is something I don’t think everyone will be so willing or wanting to do. Hostiles is a film that very much takes its time; it’s pace is methodical – it has to be to give the necessary time to everything it tackles. That results in a film that isn’t always moving at a pace that some will find engaging. It was for me, but for others it certainly won’t be. It’s also a film that doesn’t shy away from the unfair, violent cruelty of the world. People will die – not in pleasant ways – and grief is a constant companion for nearly everyone on the treacherous journey. I know these aspects to be possible problem areas, because I overheard first-hand accounts of people’s reactions to the film. Which primarily were, ‘that was good but really depressing.’
As I’ve said in many reviews, I’m a bit of an emotional masochist when it comes to films. The more real, the harsher and unfair it is, the more I find myself getting invested in the story and the characters (my recent review of the unforgivingly honest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri highlighting that point perfectly). So while this one of the best modern westerns (an anti-western actually) that I’ve seen in a while; I also accept that it will not be for everyone. It is slow, and it will beat you down.
Though the aspect of the film I don’t think anyone will ever struggle with: is the stunning cinematography. DP Masanobu Takayanagi takes full advantage of America’s landscapes. Vast, unending vistas, filled with beauty and seemingly endless possibilities; this is a film that deserves to be seen on a big screen, just so you can take in the majesty of many of the scenes. But Takayanagi also takes advantage of the more contained areas of the country; areas where our characters seem to exist in little pockets of beauty, that are hidden away from the larger world. It was a film I never tiered of looking at, and there are now many cinematically gorgeous scenes that keep popping in and out of my head, as I write this segment of the review.
In fact, the film as a whole is one I can’t stop thinking about (something that if a film achieves, usually means I really enjoyed it). Particular moments keep popping into my head; moments I mull over and break down the complexities of. While it certainly has the air of a western, this film is so much more than shootouts and riding around on horseback. The themes it explores, the commentary on the genre, all that and more, make this film much more than what it very simply could have been. It broke me emotionally, many times, but every moment of it, no matter how distressing or upsetting it was, was an experience I found to be wholly worth it.
I’m definitely going to recommend, Hostiles. It’s obviously a little silly to be saying this at such an early stage in the year, but this is currently the best film I’ve seen in 2018. Don’t let the harsh, unkind nature of the film turn you away; open your mind up to this extraordinary film, and experience what is without a doubt, Scott Cooper’s best work as a writer and director, so far.
I’d love to know what you thought of the film and my review of it, so please leave any opinions, feedback, etc. in the comments section down below. If you’re interested, may I suggest following both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll bring a close to my ramblings now, and end by saying thank you for taking the time to read my review and I hope you have a fantastic day!