Christian Bale saddles up & seeks redemption in raw, rugged Western
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike & Wes Studi
Directed by Scott Cooper
The West is wild indeed in Hostiles, writer-director Scott Cooper’s grim, existential drama set in 1892 and exploring the brutal upheavals of America’s imperial, westward expansion.
Christian Bale saddles up to star as U.S. Cavalry officer Capt. Joseph Blocker, ordered to lead a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico—where they’re being held as prisoners in a U.S. Cavalry stockade—back to their ancestral homeland in Montana.
Blocker has made his military career in the so-called “Indian Wars,” as the United States pushed its way further and further into territory previously occupied by Native Americans. War turns everyone into warriors, he says, he’s encountered Yellow Hawk before—and he’s in no mood to be his traveling companion, escort and protector.
“I’ve killed savages ‘cause that’s my job,” Blocker glumly notes. “I hate ‘em.” And he’s got a “war bag” of scalps—souvenirs of countless battlefield encounters—to prove it.
But an order is an order, and soon Blocker and his troops head out with Yellow Hawk, his son and his daughter-in-law (Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas alongside Bale in The New World) on the uneasy, grueling, thousand-mile journey, and every horse-hoof clomp telegraphs the tension. Then they come across a grieving woman (Rosamund Pike) we’ve already met—in the movie’s opening sequence—who has suffered an almost unfathomable loss in a Comanche ambush on her prairie home.
The fine ensemble cast also include Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane and Timotheè Chalamet as young officers under Blocker’s command. If it seems like you’re seeing Chalamet everywhere, all at once, you are: He was a brooding high school musician in Lady Bird and generated awards buzz as the young man who falls in love with his father’s graduate assistant in the highly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name.
Ben Foster (reuniting with Bale from their previous Western, 3:10 to Yuma) plays a military criminal who at one time served alongside Blocker. He reminds him that the two of them—and their gruesome deeds, done in the line of duty or otherwise—really aren’t all that different.
There are stretches of the movie where nothing much happens, action-wise. But the sense that something could happen, and will happen, is constant. And even the characters talking about what they’ve seen—and done—is horrifying: scalping, disemboweling, castration.
“Do you believe in the Lord?” Pike’s character asks Blocker at one point. He pauses several seconds before answering. “Yes, I do,” he says. “But he’s been blind to what’s been going on out here for a long time.”
The movie’s ever-present backdrop of frontier violence between white interlopers and Native Americans is set against the breathtaking stillness and natural beauty of the story’s landscape, captured in cinematographer Masanobu Takayani’s gorgeous, widescreen panoramas of skies, plains and mountains.
What does it mean? That beauty comes with such a high price? That America was born, shaped and sculpted in blood? That everyone, on both sides of any conflict, is capable of something atrocious and awful?
Or maybe it’s that anyone is capable of something gallant and good?
Every major character in the film is haunted—by guilt, grief, past deeds, trauma, psychological scars, shackles and chains most of us can’t even begin to imagine. As one of them says, it “makes you feel inhuman after a while.” Indeed, in Hostiles, they’re a bunch of lost, wandering souls seeking some kind of redemption, release, some kind of cleansing, a fresh start, a new world.
And the journey they’re on becomes a shared mission they never envisioned, a journey that brings them together in more ways than one.
Hostiles won’t be everyone’s trail-mix snack of a movie. It’s somber and relentless and it doesn’t exactly lift you up, spin you around and set you back down with a big happy smile, galloping toward the sunset. But for fans of Westerns, it’s a handsome, well-crafted, thought-provoking journey into the raw, rugged realities of the American West with a group of characters who need a bit more than just a shave and a shower.
If that sounds like your kind of ride, then c’mon and saddle up!
In wide release Jan. 19, 2018