Against all the facts, Hollywood managed to glamorize the old American west for at least a few decades in the twentieth century. Yet it was a brutal place, with mass genocide, murder, rape and disease galore. When the New Hollywood era began in the late 1960’s, it brought with it a new style of Western- the Revisionist Western, which sought to depict things as they really were. Even so, no Western film has ever been as aggressively glum and dour as Hostiles. Christian Bale stars as Captain Joseph Blocker, who in the year 1892 is given a mission to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a dying Cheyenne war chief, back to his tribal lands in Montana so he can die there in peace. The two former enemies are forced to work together to band off raiding Comanches, aggressive land owners and fur traders alike. It’s not “All Lives Matter- The West,” but it’s not too far above it either.
The film is the latest from actor-turned-prestige director Scott Cooper, who has carved out a niche for himself making passable prestige dramas (Out Of The Furnace, Black Mass) with a violent streak. Cooper is like a young Mel Gibson, a director who seems hyper focused on man’s obsession with righteous violence and sacrifice. Like his other films, Hostiles is an awards season release that seems designed for Oscar attention- and like those films, will get absolutely none.
As the film begins, we meet Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) as she experiences the worst, most shocking and violent day of her life at the hands of a Comanche war party. There’s an interesting play on our expectations that sets up the rest of the film. As the title card comes up and fades away back to the movie action, we hear a woman screaming, expecting it to be Rosalie. But it turns out to be someone else. In this old west, everyone has lost someone to violence. And it seems that just about everyone has taken someone by it as well. The cycle of hurt goes round and round, and Cooper wants to portray a group of people who might end up breaking it.
Blocker’s escort happens upon Rosalie, as she joins the party and the two form a tenuous relationship. Also along for the ride are Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and Yellow Hawk’s family, portrayed by Native actor stalwarts Adam Beach (Smoke Signals, Suicide Squad) and Q’Orianka Kilcher (The New World). The fact that Studi is second or third billed and featured on the poster gave me high hopes for the movie’s potential at depicting its Native characters as more than passing faces. But unfortunately, they are given little to do as the story stays primarily focused on the pain of Rosalie and Blocker. Not that the two haven’t been through horrible traumas (and they each get some moving scenes)- but the film’s commitment to their arc above others is a reflection of the film’s main issue- it places the most vital, relevant, and interesting part of the story (Yellow Hawk and his family’s journey) on the backburner.
The film also has that tone problem that seems to persist with Cooper. He’s a humorless director, which is odd considering that he came onto the scene with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, back in 2009. Perhaps aiming for respect, his solution to grappling with challenging material seems to be to lean deeper into the miserablist aspect of it. Dressed in grays and muted blues, the west has never seemed more melancholy onscreen, even if it is beautiful.
Hostiles is based on a manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, who wrote The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear & Present Danger before passing away in 1999. This movie feels like it got away from the 90’s- a time where Hollywood loved to tell stories about complicated American history, yet always from a white savior perspective. I can tell that Cooper tried to update it for more modern perspectives, such as a true grappling with the scar of Indian genocide. If he doesn’t manage to point the true blame for the movie’s violence to the correct party, he has a character just blurt it out for good measure. He also neatly sidesteps false equivalencies through focusing on the “we’ve all lost people” narrative of soldiers engaged in battle. He does try- but he never escapes the core rot- a rot which shows its ugly face in a colossally mishandled ending, which feels like a betrayal of everything that came before it.
I have always been excited for Scott Cooper films, because they have their moments, and tend to look great. They boast incredible casts, and are generally about subjects I find fascinating. Yet he is going to need a few more tricks up his sleeve if I am going to keep paying attention to him. I will always show up for a Hollywood western- so if you are like me, then Hostiles is still worth seeing. Just make sure you bring along your Lexapro.
Hostiles opens in Philly theaters today.