Hostiles is a 2018 western adventure about a legendary Army captain who reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.
Writer/director Scott Cooper sets an immediate face to what is coming in Hostiles, an uncompromising look at the realities of a time in American history of terrible upheaval. It’s a jarring opening to a film that doesn’t play lightly with its story, something Cooper has no fear of doing in nearly all his films. Like his brilliant but underseen Out of the Furnace, this is another film about conflict and tragedy, with a man on a journey of salvation through a land of terrible menace.
On a plot of open land in New Mexico, 1892, a family is attacked by raiding Comanche warriors who set upon them with astonishing ferocity, scalping and killing the father and his three young children while his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape into the woods. Meanwhile, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a haggard veteran of the Army, who has seen and committed great horrors in the wars against Native Americans, is now given orders to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), an aging notorious Chief suffering a terminal illness, to Montana. They come upon Rosalie and take her into the small fold of travelers, and now Blocker must face not only the mounting threat of attack on all sides but the formidable pressures of demons in his heart and mind.
Cooper is very good at building a desperately grim world. There is no joy in a land smothered by death, cultures colliding with harrowing results. The opening volley is a testament to this, not glorifying or stylizing the thundering urgency of violence, but rather establishing an atmosphere of dread. We feel for Rosalie of course, her fear and sorrow unnervingly raw, and it would seem that Cooper has firmly set his villains in place, though it’s toppled immediately by a cut to Blocker, who is next shown savagely capturing a family of Native Americans in his job to eradicate and clear the people of the land. It’s this constant tip of the seesaw that keeps us unsettled, Cooper committed to his theme of no heroes without darkness.
As any journey of discovery demands, Blocker’s is fraught with challenge where choices made mean life or death. As he leads the small caravan across landscapes of breathtaking beauty, he is confronted by unimaginable horrors and comes to find a find of kinship with his prisoner, Yellow Hawk, who warns him of the dangers. The two share a history of brutality and as the days march on and a devastating cycle of violence ensnares them, it’s a question of holding on to any thread of sanity.
The story begins to sway a bit when an additional prisoner, a soldier accused of murder (Ben Foster) is added to Blocker’s assignment, the two men also sharing a history that certainly adds more layers to Blocker but draws away from the better main story. Fortunately, this is a brief encounter made mostly to further impede Blocker’s growth away from his haunts. Guilt, prejudice, and questions of right and wrong orbit him throughout and this is where Cooper does best, with Bale giving another sensationally grounded and affecting performance.
Hostiles is not always easy to watch. It’s graphic both with its visuals and its personalities. Studi, as always, creates a deeply dignified character with great impact and Pike does what is really some of the best work she’s ever done. The film has flaws – at over two hours, sometimes losing its way – yet is a powerfully emotional and traumatic experience that is indeed dark but not without inspiration.
Movie description: Hostiles is a 2018 western adventure about a legendary Army captain who reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.
Director(s): Scott Cooper
Actor(s): Scott Shepherd, Rosamund Pike, Ava Cooper