John Ford once said that there is no more perfect an image for cinema than that of a man on a horse riding into some presumably picturesque Western horizon. On that front, one would assume Scott Cooper, director of the elegiac and deconstructionist Hostiles, is in agreement. For the Crazy Heart director has helmed one of the most visually breathtaking Westerns of the last 10 years, which is all the more remarkable since his film wishes to tear into the myth and sins that created this appealing lie. Very much built in the post-Unforgiven mold, Hostiles desires to do for the “Cowboys and Indians” half of the mythology what Clint Eastwood did for those no-good, no-name drifters in his 1992 classic. But the deeper Cooper digs into his own yarn, the more he unintentionally kills its passion… and the reason he was likely attracted to men on horseback in the first place.
Very much attempting to reach to the heart of the matter about the Old West’s once pristine new frontier, Hostiles is a movie that alternates between the lyrical and the visceral, the deliberate and the shockingly, swiftly violent. And its point is taken right from the beginning. The idea of starting anew on untouched land meant a slow-walking genocide that led to generations of war of attrition, and with this film we are seeing the final skirmishes after the conflict is already won.
It’s the year 1892 when the movie begins with a heart-pounding Comanche attack. Taking a page straight out of Ford’s The Searchers—save with little left to the imagination—a family is brutally massacred by a rightfully aggrieved but nevertheless merciless and vindictive Native American force. Meanwhile, Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is only a week from retirement inside the U.S. Cavalry when he is forced to swallow his pride for the worst assignment he could imagine.
Due to political pressure, Joseph is being assigned the duty of escorting a dying warrior chieftain named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to a holy site in Montana. Studi’s Indian leader was once the most feared man in the West, and he took the lives of many friends, whose gruesome deaths are as visible on Bale’s face as the thickly applied scars. Joseph wants no part in the mission, but he’ll have to discard his own bigotry and hatred for Yellow Hawk and all Natives if he wants his pension. And still, he and his small squadron of disposable subordinates quickly see everything go sideways.
First, there is the discovery of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who is the sole survivor of the film’s opening Comanche attack. Then there is the fact that the men who slaughtered her family are still out there, and they’d just as soon do the same to Yellow Hawk’s children and grandchildren, never mind Capt. Blocker and his Cavalry men. Worse still, Joseph is soon saddled with more ghosts from the past like Sgt. Charles Wills (Ben Foster), who fought in the same battles as Blocker, but is now sentenced to face a hangman’s noose for murdering a Native family in their sleep. The further they all travel on the road to Montana, the clearer it becomes there will be no clean absolution for anyone in this blood-soaked land.
What works about Hostiles tends to work magnificently. Bale and Pike are at the top of their game in a film where they are the default leads, in part due to having multiple awards and nominations between them—and because they’re white. Yet the film intentionally depicts them with figurative and sometimes literal blood on their hands. Before the picture begins, they’ve been complicit in the repopulation of the West, and as such they are symbols of why the land is painted in a crimson red. Even so, both have just cause to be weary of Native Americans after losing so much, and both actors play the the weight of that loss with humane grace, even when Bale’s Blocker is at his most graceless.
There is a sequence midway through the film where Pike’s Rosalie drops all pretense of her meager piety in the face of total loss to confess she thinks of suicide to Joseph, but like the wounded and stoic rock of granite Bale is personifying, she forces herself to carry on in her own guarded and uniformed manner. Their arc of accepting the past, as well as their Native compatriots on this journey, is predictable but played with the sincerest of delicacies.
However, beyond those central emotional journeys and Cooper’s ability to use sudden atrocity to bewilder his audience into submission, all other attempts at deconstructing the Oater iconography of “good vs. evil” finds more dirt than gold. Studi and the entire Native American cast of Hostiles, including the always underused Adam Beach, is reduced to broad cliché as wounded, noble beings or nigh faceless “hostiles.” Attempting to mask minimalism for artfulness, Cooper’s movie underserves most of the supporting players to the point of their being ciphers, and this includes most of the remaining white cast too, such as Timothée Chalamet and Rory Cochrane, as well as Jonathan Majors as the only black man in Bale’s outfit. None escape a sweeping sense of wasted potential.
The lone exception among the supporting players is Ben Foster, who portrays a malignant revenant with the same kind of welcome pathos the character actor can bring to almost any monster made human flesh. Yet his mirror to Bale’s Blocker is essentially a fun house reflection, for every set-piece and character they encounter underscores the either vile or virtuous deeds from a history that is ending when faced with the 20th century, as “the West” as they all know it has already begun to fade into memory and myth. While occasionally soulful, the repetitive nature of that point suggests the characters are riding in circles instead of due west or to any sort of grand epiphany.
There is is an undeniably affecting melancholy that permeates the exquisite craftsmanship of Hostiles and its harrowing performances. But in its urgency to unpack the legend of a bygone age, the movie sadly sees too many of its real qualities pass it by, leaving only a turgid eulogy in its wake.
Hostiles opens on Friday, Dec. 22.