‘Hostiles’ is the first official Western by writer/director Scott Cooper, whose previous movies (‘Crazy Heart’, ‘Out of the Furnace’) have essentially been Westerns minus the period trappings. Undoubtedly, finally getting to make a real deal Western was a dream come true for the director. Too bad he was so determined to make one relentlessly grim and glacially slow. The experience of watching ‘Hostiles’ is draining and exhausting.
There have been a few different strains of modern stabs at the genre, but all of them question conventional notions of white hat/black hat Western morality. ‘Hostiles’ is the type that strives to re-evaluate the treatment of Native American characters. The film starts out in a pretty wild place before coming around to redemption. We’re thrust headfirst into an impressively mounted and almost unbearably disturbing raid as a gang of Comanches attack a white family, leaving only the mother (Rosamund Pike) alive. The story then slides elsewhere and we’re introduced to Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale). He doesn’t take to kindly to First Nations folks, having seen many atrocities committed by them (and in the process, committing many of his own). Blocker is assigned by his commanding officer to escort his former nemesis, the terminally ill Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), to Montana with his family, where the prisoners will be set free. Blocker is disgusted at the thought, but is forced to follow through. Hmmm… Do you think he might learn to see the humanity in his prisoner despite all the horrible things that are sure to happen along the way?
From the opening moments, this death-of-the-West tale is harsh, nasty, and unforgiving. This isn’t just a world without heroes or easy morality; it’s a hellish landscape populated only by innocents on a path to corruption or figures of pure evil on horseback. The script pretends to tread in the gray areas between the extremes, but does so only in terms slightly less complex than the old Westerns this is supposed to be rallying against. In theory, that the film starts in such a cruel place only to end in more egalitarian one should feel like an impressive journey. That’s true on the surface, but in the end it’s such an easy dramatic journey to make that it doesn’t really register in the way Cooper hopes it will land. While Native Americans face deeply unsettling levels of persecution, dismissal and bigotry in real world these days, in Westerns they’ve been redeemed so many times that it feels like cliché. Cooper isn’t really doing anything new here. He’s just doing it in more miserable and viciously violent ways. That’s not necessarily an improvement.
‘Hostiles’ has plenty of superficially impressive elements that make it difficult to dismiss. The dusty, dead and unforgiving world created by the remarkable craftsmen on the crew (plus good old Mother Nature) is stunning and evocative. The cast are also uniformly strong despite their fairly two-dimensional roles, with Rosamond Pike and Christian Bale proving to be predictably impressive leads. (Fact: As long as McG isn’t involved, Bale is always excellent.) The film looks and often sounds like a great revisionist Western, but rarely feels like one. The bulk of that falls on Scott Cooper’s shoulders. He just can’t seem to pace the story with any finesse or tell it with any gravity. The episodic and winding narrative meanders and sputters despite being an ultimately simple morality tale.
If all the shots of characters staring off woefully into the distance and the visual quotations of ‘The Searchers’ were removed, ‘Hostiles’ might be a watchable 90-minute genre flick. Instead, the whole thing drones on and on far past the point of pleasure or resonance. It’s a Western that takes itself far too seriously, especially since the Liberal guilt subject at the center is so overplayed. In the end, ‘Hostiles’ is really only worth approaching for Christian Bale completists and those who have a fetish for cinematic misery.