Directed by: Scott Cooper
Premise: Set in 1892, a United States’ Cavalry officer (Christian Bale) escorts an ailing Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to Montana so that the chief can die and be buried on his homeland.
What Works: Hostiles takes place near the end of the Indian Wars which were fought between various native peoples and the United States’ government. As such, this is a postwar film about the aftermath of violence and the characters are forced to reconcile what they’ve done and what they’ve seen. Quite a few of the key characters of Hostiles suffer from what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder and the film has a complex regard for the way people are shaped by violence and how they respond to it. A United States Army captain who fought against the native people is assigned to escort a Cheyanne chief back to Montana. The chief is dying of cancer and has been released under public pressure so that he can be buried in his homeland. The captain, played by Christian Bale, wrestles with his duty but while escorting the chief and the native leader’s family across the western terrain he gradually comes to some reconciliation. A similar transformation occurs in a woman played by Rosamund Pike; her character’s family was murdered by Native American bandits and she has to put her life back together. Bale and Pike are terrific and the movie gives each of them the space to unspool the trauma that haunts their characters. As the title implies, the west of Hostiles is still a dangerous place that is inhabited by marauders and the movie achieves a violent tone without actually including a lot of violence. When the fights and shootouts happen the violence is vicious but not unnecessarily bloody and the emphasis is often on what the aftermath means for the survivors. The violence of Hostiles contrasts with the beauty of the setting. The western landscape is terrifically shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi in ways the capture the majesty and the harshness of the land.
What Doesn’t: Hostiles is a more pensive film than its premise and marketing materials might suggest. The tone and style of the picture is closer to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford than it is to either Dances with Wolves or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. That’s not a flaw of Hostiles but it isn’t the shoot-’em-up movie that this was marketed to be during its theatrical release. As a story about the aftermath of the Indian wars, Hostiles doesn’t do a whole lot that is new. It mostly remains within the familiar moral framework of revisionist Westerns in which the Native Americans were victims of the United States’ military. The movie revisits familiar themes in which empathy and contrition lead toward peace. These aren’t new ideas and the film doesn’t present innovative ways of thinking about western stories or the historical conflicts between western settlers and native peoples. But it does make those ideas vivid through its characters and that’s enough to distinguish this film.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: Hostiles is a thoughtful film that is paradoxically violent and sensitive. The movie may not break new ground in the western genre but it does feature a nuanced and complex portrait of postwar trauma that applies well beyond its historical setting.
Episode: #704 (June 24, 2018)