A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2018

RANK: #7

HOSTILES jjjj

2017, R, 127 mins.

 

Christian Bale as Captain Joseph J. Blocker  /  Rosamund Pike as Rosalie Quaid  /  Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk  /  Ben Foster as Philip Wills  /  Jesse Plemons as The Escort  /  Adam Beach as Black Hawk  /  Rory Cochrane as Sergeant Thomas Metz  /  Q'orianka Kilcher as Elk Woman  /  Jonathan Majors as Corporal Henry Woodson  /  Timothée Chalamet as Private Philippe DeJardin  /  Peter Mullan as Lieutenant Colonel Ross McGowan  /  Stephen Lang as Blocker’s commanding officer

Written and directed by Scott Cooper 

Writer/director Scott Cooper specializes in films that create a remarkable evocation of time and place while grounding them with characters that have an authentically lived-in weight about them.  You gain the sense that life's hardships have weighed heavily on their souls to the point where spiritual redemption seems unlikely.  

His latest film HOSTILES is a brutally harrowing and unendingly compelling American period western that - like his previous films OUT OF THE FURNACE and the underrated BLACK MASS - delves into how violence in all of its forms fundamentally changes people and how they perceive others they deem as different.  The personas that permeate HOSTILES seem like they're on the brink of total emotional implosion with no hope for rebound in sight, mostly because they live in an unforgivably bleak world that involves death on a daily basis.  It's so rare to see a western in this day an age when it's all but extinct that reminds us that it's capable of being one of the most evocative of all genres.  

HOSTILES takes absolutely no prisoners with its hellishly violent and shocking opening.  It's 1892 and a family of New Mexico-residing homesteaders - a mother, father, and three young children - are living a life of relative peace and harmony on the plains when a squad of bloodthirsty Comanche warriors ride towards their ranch.  The father is ruthlessly murdered and scalped, leaving the mother trying to flee with her infant and two children.  The natives end up murdering all of the children, but the mother manages to survive and flees into the woods undetected.  Very few westerns - or any films, for that matter - contain introductory scenes of such deplorable and stomach turning bloodshed that punches viewers right in the gut the way HOSTILES does; right from the get-go Cooper establishes this world for what it is: cruel and unforgiving to anyone and at any particular moment...without warning. 

 

 

The film then segues to a militarized fort in New Mexico that's home to Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale, rarely so soft spokenly fierce), whose spent a majority of his adult life waging a systematic and merciless war against Native Americans.  The captain is damaged goods pretty much beyond repair: he not only hates natives, but he nearly prides himself on how many he's decimated out of pure revulsion.  There are reverences to his dark past that saw him witness many friends and fellow soldiers being killed by so-called-savages, which is arguably the main root of his intense bigotry.  With the Indian Wars subsiding Blocker is looking to retire to a life of seclusion and quiet, but before he can he's called into the office of his superior (Stephen Lang), who then forces him to partake in one last mission that severely challenges his widely held beliefs about the natives.  Worst of all, if he refuses he'll be very quickly given a court martial and hung to death. 

Blocker's unimaginably difficult (for him, anyway) assignment is this: He's to lead an expedition to escort one of his most hated of enemies, the cancer-riddled and nearly dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi),  back home to Montana so he can die in peace with what's left of his family in tow.  Blocker, rather predictably, initially refuses the assignment, seeing as he perceives Yellow Hawk as everything that's odious about the natives, but since his peaceful retirement and life are in the balance, he begrudgingly agrees.  With his loyal group of handpicked soldiers (played by Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, and Timothee Chalamet respectively), Blocker begins his unenviable task of taking Yellow Hawk and his clan on the long and arduous journey ahead.   Along the way and early on, Blocker and company find a mentally unstrung woman, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), the same woman that had her entire family murdered in the opening sections of the film.  This compliments things immensely for Blocker and his mission. 

From its opening scenes it's abundantly clear that HOSTILES is a western of staggering beauty and uncompromising bleakness.  Visually, Cooper forges a stunning looking period film, thanks largely to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's painterly compositions that accurately reflect a late 19th Century New Mexico as a place of lush vistas, yet intimidating natural hardships.  The grounded level of palpable atmosphere shown in the film helps cement the tone that Cooper is aspiring to, which, superficially, is aiming for classic and iconic motifs of the genre while rigidly and thematically leaning heavily towards a revisionist stance.  HOSTILES is a long film - over 130 minutes - but it rarely feels bloated and self indulgent, mostly because Cooper matches his superlative stylistic handling of the material with a muscular and hefty forward momentum that rarely wanes in the slightest.  Tension is generated primarily not with action, fisticuffs, and gun battles (although, the film has ample moments involving that), but rather in seeing the unhealthily racist Blocker trying not to curtail his baser emotional drives to want to eradicate Yellow Hawk off of the face of the earth while paradoxically serving as his guide and protector; it's an endlessly intriguing dynamic.   

Of course, as Blocker's mission lengthens and complications ensue - which leads to some of his men being lost along the way - his outlook begins to slowly, but surely change.  HOSTILES is on remarkably solid thematic ground in this respect, and all while not playing up a predictable salvation arc for its characters that flows smoothly down browbeaten paths.  Blocker begins the film as a cauldron of blind hate; he despise natives because his past with them is simply punctuated by death and destruction and, as a result, has never been given an opportunity to get to know his enemies on any relatable level.  HOSTILES becomes a surprisingly moving western in how it displays the gradual thawing of Blocker's disgust of natives while learning that, deep down, Yellow Hawk and his people are beings of great humanity and respect.  Throwing Rosalie into the mix adds a whole other compelling ingredient into the mix, seeing as she nightmarishly had to witness the murder of her baby and young children at the hands of natives, but manages, in her own way, to develop a nurturing bond with Yellow Hawk's family, seeing as they too have seen their own kind lost due to vile circumstances.  Both Blocker and Rosalie learn that these people share similar qualities to them, which subsequently makes it hard to demonize them as they once did. 

The bravura ensemble performances drive everything dramatically home here, and Christian Bale - one of our greatest actors - gives one of his most internalized performances of haunting pain to grace the screen in an awfully long time.  The key to it is in how he underplays most moments that, in a lesser actors hands, would have resulted in theatrical, Oscar baiting grandstanding.  Through his eyes and glances you gain an immediate understanding of this tortured human being's odious opinions of others unlike him, which is chilling to endure and pathetically sad at the same time.  Pike is also outstanding as well, and she once again shows here as she did in her Oscar nominated performance in GONE GIRL how she can so thanklessly commit herself to an emotionally ravaging performance that throws all vanity out the window.  I also greatly admired Rory Cochrane's quiet mannered supporting performance as one of Blocker's right hand men that's seen and done so much impeachable harm to the natives that it's all but eroded his sanity.  And lastly, we have the great commanding presence of Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk, who brings an unmistakable nobility and gravitas to his role of a dying chief looking to spend his last days in peace. 

Even though, yes, HOSTILES is a western and occupies a bygone era and place in history, its themes are overwhelming timely, especially for how we're still living in an oppressive age of racial tension and anxieties.  The greatness of Cooper's film is how it demonstrates that even a seemingly untamable black heart like Blocker's can be retooled when given chances to harmoniously bridge the gap with those he once loathed.  Rather wisely, Cooper never cements Blocker's relationship with Rosalie on any romantic level while on his redemptive path; they're both just lonely souls filled with pain that reach out to each other as support mechanisms on their mutual road to emotional recovery.  HOSTILES can be unflinchingly difficult to sit through at times, but by its conclusion there's an aura of hope in the air for its characters when it seemed impossible when the film began.  And the fact that this whole arc never feels forced or manipulative is a testament to Cooper's authoritative skills as a filmmaker and with HOSTILES he's loving crafted one of the best westerns in years. 

  H O M E