I know I’ve mentioned this every time I’ve reviewed one, but westerns are my least favorite genre. I know this because I cannot think of a western I’ve liked since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and even that’s tainted now thanks to Casey Affleck’s predatory habits. Hostiles, the new film from Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart and Black Mass, tells the story of Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he begrudgingly guides a rival Cheyenne chief back to his homeland to pass in peace. Meeting a recently widowed prairie wife along the way, Blocker and crew attempt to bypass American and Native combatants along the way.
The film began with dread. Immediately, we are assaulted by the brutal killing of Rosalie Quaid’s (Rosamund Pike) family by rogue Comanche. I expected the usual heteronormative, murder-heavy crossing of vast fields found in your standard western, but Hostiles possess a rare gentility behind its ample violence. Blocker has built a career out of slaughtering Native Americans. Christian Bale, stoic, gruff, and ready to retire, gives subtlety a workout, allowing silence and pauses to speak in lieu of outright anger. He is not pleased about returning Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) alive to his home after the perceived damage he wrought on Blocker’s forces. Captain Blocker, repeatedly challenged with the difference between his and Yellow Hawk’s motives in their slaughters, is allowed to grow within the trip to realize his history may have been more detrimental than expected. Bale, as good as ever, has tender moments along the way, connecting tenderly with Pike’s widow and an African-American soldier in his duty (a memorable Jonathan Majors), utilizing stoicism as a cover for deeper, less accessible emotional journeys. Rosamund Pike pulls out her strongest performance since Gone Girl, cycling through stages of grief, gliding between utter loss and abject terror and eventually staunch brutality to become a formidable companion on this trip. The ever reliable Ben Foster finds another backlands rule breaker with equally menacing traits, a great companion to his best-in-show performance from Hell or High Water.
Filled with exceptional costumes by Jenny Eagan (Beast of No Nation) and a pulsating score from Max Richter, the story was authentically and attractively delivered. Balancing the ruthlessness of frontier life with the ethics of the near-ritualistic revenge slayings that plagued an expanding America, this film lines up with Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River with much needed looks at Native American history. Though white men still headline both features, they are at least done with reverence to the atrocities Native populations face. In Hostiles, the genocide inflicted by Americans against the country’s true inhabitants makes the violent history pitiable for the invaded Native American populations. Their retort was equally violent, but they were attempt the save their land. Scott Cooper unwinds the recollection of this war with grace under fire.