Guilt and anger run deep in Hostiles, a raw, painfully deliberate western from writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Into The Furnace). Taking place at the tail end of the 19th century, it’s a smouldering bonfire of a movie seemingly at pains to draw parallels with the violence and racial divisions that still divide modern America.
Christian Bale, face lined and partly obscured by a huge moustache, plays Captain Joe Blocker, an ageing soldier whose past is filled with tales of war and murder. Possessed by a deep-seated hatred of Native Americans, Blocker is briefly incensed when he has an escort mission forced on him by his superior, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang): take an elderly and deathly ill Apache chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from a fort in New Mexico, where he’s been imprisoned for years, and shepherd him back to his home soil in Montana. After years of state-sanctioned genocide, the powers that be appear to have softened their stance on Native Americans like Yellow Hawk, who in his younger days killed a number of white men close to Blocker – hence the latter’s 100 kilowatt stares and reservoirs of hatred.
Threatened with a court martial, Blocker swallows his pride and sets off with his men – among them his hollow-eyed, traumatised subordinate Thomas (Rory Cochrane, who’s terrific) – plus Yellow Hawk and his family, who were also captured years earlier. So begins a beautifully shot but inordinately long plod across the Old West, in which Blocker meets and earns the trust of a bereaved woman, Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family was horrifically wiped out by a gang of Comanche thieves. From the opening 20 minutes, it’s possible to see Blocker’s redemption arc stretching out like a vast concrete bridge; as he and his group are beset by murderous Native Americans, cattle rustlers and more besides, it’s the central character’s growing respect for Yellow Hawk that ties the plot together.
There wouldn’t be much wrong with this, except that Cooper, who adapts a story by the late screenwriter Donald E Stewart, gives the two characters precious few scenes in which to bond. Worse still, Cooper’s well-meant desire to make a film about the dehumanising effects of violence doesn’t extend to making his Native American characters seem particularly, well, human. S Craig Zahler’s brisk western-horror mash-up Bone Tomahawk was criticised in some quarters for the retrograde treatment of its non-white characters. For all its earnestness, Hostiles is no better: the Comanches that butcher Rosalee’s family are barely-glimpsed monsters; the great Wes Studi is given little to do as a stereotypically wise and noble chief. The film’s white characters vocally express their regret at the violence and maltreatment that has left Yellow Hawk’s people decimated and without a voice; how ironic, then, that the Native Americans in the movie are given so little time to express their thoughts on the matter. It’s like holding a seminar on sexism in the workplace and only inviting men called Dave.
As the film’s anti-hero, Bale evidently gives Blocker everything he’s got, but struggles to mine much more from the character than world-weary gloom. Likewise Rosamund Pike, who gamely rides horses and wields a shotgun, but the story leaves her with endless scenes of grief following a nail-biting introduction. One emotionally-charged but endless scene sees her dig a hole with her bare hands, in real time, while screaming. Come to think of it, there are few westerns that feature quite so many close-ups of men and women crying and gnashing their teeth.
Some spectacular sequences, including a trudge through a monsoon where the slicks of rain and mud positively run from the screen, are a reminder of Cooper’s control as a filmmaker. But as a compelling story, Hostiles seems to wriggle from his grasp; the sentiments about racial and territorial divisions are all politically right-on, but the way they’re paid off is limp in the extreme. Blocker is open about the murders of men, women and children that blight his past; by befriending his sworn enemy and nobly defending his family from white landowners, Cooper appears to suggest that the character’s somehow redeemed himself. When the plot asks Yellow Hawk and Blocker to glibly agree that there has been tragedy on both sides, the lingering sensation is not of satisfaction, but quiet annoyance.
Hostiles is out in UK cinemas on the 5th January.