Why Hostiles is the Western We Need Right Now

Director Scott Cooper explains the origin, meaning and relevance of his stark, brutal tale.

Coming to Blu-ray and DVD this week is Hostiles, writer/director Scott Cooper’s stark, brutally violent Western about a hardened, hate-filled Army captain (Christian Bale) who is assigned to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal lands.

As they travel the harsh route from New Mexico to Montana, picking up a woman (Rosamund Pike) along the way whose entire family has been murdered, the captain, his men, the woman and the chief’s family must find a way to cooperate and protect themselves against the elements and enemies both Native American and white.

A formal Western that is very much about the differences ripping America apart today, Hostiles was one of the very best films of 2017. It’s certainly the finest of Cooper’s four films so far, all of which (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace and Black Mass) have touched on America and some of its darker aspects, with Out of the Furnace almost a Western itself only dressed in contemporary clothes (while also being Cooper’s first collaboration with Bale).

Den of Geek got on the phone with Cooper recently to discuss the origin of Hostiles — it was based loosely on a story fragment left behind by late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart — the making of the film, its relevance to today and Cooper’s next two projects, one of which will pair him with Guillermo del Toro.

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Den of Geek: Hi, Scott.

Scott Cooper: Hey, how are you?

Good, man. How are you doing today?

Quite well, thank you. Just writing a little bit. I don’t idle well.

Anything you want to talk about or something under wraps for now?

Oh, I’m working on two things. One, a project with Guillermo del Toro, a horror film called Antlers. And a film about the assassination of Dr. King and the manhunt to bring James Earl Ray to justice, and that’s called Hellhound on His Trail. So I’m working on the two of ’em.

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We’ll just touch on those a little bit again later. First, let’s talk about Hostiles. I kind of went into it almost a little bit cold, and it shook me a lot. A very powerful film.

Thank you. Thank you very much. I could not be more grateful for the reception of the film from those that mean the most to me – other filmmakers, those who made it with me, my peers, family, and most importantly, the Native American community. It’s been a life-changing experience for me.

I understand that the seed of the movie was a long-lost treatment or a short story by Donald Stewart.

My representatives knew that I long wanted to make a Western. They received a call from the widow of Donald Stewart, saying that while she really appreciated my first film Crazy Heart, the film that she couldn’t quite shake was Out of the Furnace. And while she was selling her home, moving house, at the bottom of a box she found something that she thought would intrigue me. I think my agents were a bit reluctant, but in the end, they read it and they said, “Scott, you have to take a look at this.”

This notion of a man who’s taking a group of hostiles — forgot where it was in Mr. Stewart’s treatment, but I placed it from New Mexico to Montana — really intrigued me, and it allowed me to tell a story about the racial and cultural divide that we are now experiencing and that is growing wider by the day, and this need for the two Americas to try to better come together and offer one another a sense of healing and reconciliation and understanding, because it’s clear that we’re headed down a dark path.

So I felt like, with that, I could tell a story about our dark and unforgivable past of genocide, but also where we as Americans are today and where it looks like we’re going.

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That epigraph on the film, the DH Lawrence quote (“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”) — it’s very chilling to read that. How do you think we got there and will that be our epitaph if we don’t change the way that we do things?

Well, our country was founded upon violence, right? Certainly from the English landing in Virginia in 1607, and our treatment of Native Americans since, and through this great republic of suffering in the American Civil War, and all the way through the violence that plays out on our screens every day.

So we are an extremely violent nation, much more so than others around the world, and that tends to reoccur thematically within my work. And I don’t quite know what the answer is as to why we are a much more violent nation than, say, Canada, other than to say the ability for people to get firearms that they shouldn’t, with such ease, and the lack of gun-control legislation I think is so desperately needed.

So yeah, our nation was borne out of violence and for DH Lawrence to observe that the American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer, I think, was accurate and never more so than today. What I really wanted to say with that quote is that Christian Bale’s character was indoctrinated by the United States government to enact the type of hatred and bigotry that he did. But by the end of the film, you see that he begins to soften. And he’s no longer quite applicable to that quote. He’s different at the end.

Once you had the story that you wanted to tell, did you realize that it would be a way to comment on where we are now?

Yeah, that history continues, sadly, to repeat itself. The very first screening of the film, in Telluride, one of the first people to introduce themselves to me was Ken Burns, the documentarian. And we talked about that very thing, this notion that history continues to repeat itself and the past isn’t really prologue, the past is now, essentially. It’s unfortunate. I don’t quite know how to resolve that, apart from, as I said, meaningful gun legislation, mental health oversight, all the sort of things that need to be done … that fortunately, a younger generation is demanding that we address.

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What interested you in working in the Western genre? Out of the Furnace was almost a Western in modern guise.

Indeed. I think my mentor Robert Duvall said that the French have Moliere, the English have Shakespeare, and that we as Americans have the Western. Something that we invented that speaks to a certain mythology, to a certain code, symbol of the American Myth, and a symbol of the American man. And it was something that I think any self-respecting American director really wants to try. They’re very difficult to get made, but I was very fortunate that one sole investor, who had invested in the works of Terence Malick and Gus Van Sant, he had really loved Out of the Furnace, and said, “Anything you want to make, bring to me.” And I brought him this and off we went.

So it’s a real privilege to be able to tell a story like this, because I can assure that studios are not racing to tell Westerns, certainly those that touch on America as I see it today.

You shot on location and in sequence. How did that impact production and the actors?

It was very challenging to shoot starting in New Mexico and winding your way northward up towards Montana, but the actors loved it, and so did the crew, because we were able to understand where the story was going and adapt from things that we’ve already filmed and where we had yet to go. For the actors, it allowed them to really see their arc. It really allowed them to live in the fashion that their characters, as scripted, lived. I think if I could do every film in such a fashion, I would. But it’s generally more expensive to do that.

What’s interesting about the film, and about this genre, is that a lot of violent, ugly things that happen in the plot are a counterpoint to the beauty of the landscape in which you’re working.

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Yes, indeed. That was by design to show how insubstantial humans are in the scope of nature, but also that some of the most incredibly majestic and enchanting locations, in actuality, were the backdrop for extremely violent and horrific actions. I wanted that to be a part of this narrative as well.

You’ve worked with Christian Bale a couple of times now. Would you like this to become one of those great director-actor combinations going forward?

That’s not for me to say. That would be for those who write about film and who experience it differently than I do. But I will say, yes, Christian and I really hope to make many films together. He is able to express what it is I want to say in a film in ways that many actors can’t. He’s clearly not right for every part that I will make, but I can assure you that those that he is right for, he will see the screenplay first.

Can we circle back and say a little bit about these other two projects?

(The Martin Luther King film) is based on Hampton Sides’ reportage called Hellhound on His Trail, which is the stalking of Martin Luther King Jr., and the manhunt for his assassin, James Earl Ray. I’ve been working on that for a year. And Antlers, I’ve been working alongside Guillermo, who has been such a generous producer. I’m so thrilled to work not only with him, but with Fox Searchlight again, who released my first film, Crazy Heart.

So, two projects that I’m extremely excited about, and it’s clear that a film like the King movie is more relevant today than ever, given that his legacy is being assaulted at every angle by our current administration.

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Is Antlers part of Guillermo’s new production banner through Searchlight?

It is. Yeah. I think it’s going be the first picture under that new deal.

Antlers is your first foray into the horror genre.

What excited me about that was being able to work in a genre which I’ve never worked. I was, as a child, so influenced by John Carpenter’s Halloween and Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and then later in life, the work of Tarkovsky with Stalker. So for me, it seemed like an opportunity to work in a genre that I hadn’t quite worked in. But as Guillermo said, “Scott, your last three movies have been horror movies.”

Hostiles is out on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday (April 24).