Arts movie review

‘Hostiles’ is a brutal, if unfeeling, portrayal of the Western Frontier

Scott Cooper directs the latest Western ‘Hostiles’

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Christian Bale and company in Scott Cooper's 'Hostiles.'

Directed by Scott Cooper
Screenplay by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi
Rated R, Now Playing

In what begins with a whirlwind but slows to a crawl, director and writer Scott Cooper’s film Hostiles has us wishing for dynamic dialogue and a more succinct and surprising script. Adapted from an original story by Donald E. Stewart, the film is set in 1892 and centers around decorated soldier Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) and the struggles that his band of soldiers encounters while trying to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from their imprisonment in New Mexico’s Fort Berringer to their original Cheyenne territory in Montana. Of course, they will have to pass through the territory of several hostile Native American tribes to successfully make the journey.

The film begins with a jolt as we witness a tribe of Native Americans brutally slaughtering a family. The only remaining survivor is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who is left clutching her dead baby in shock. We too are aghast — the camera itself provides no relief as we see the dull gleam of her husband’s skull after his body is scalped by the hostile Native Americans. One of Captain Blocker’s men, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Roy Cochrane), makes a comment in an admittedly unconvincing exchange with one of the younger soldiers, “When you [kill] enough… it don’t mean nothing.” After the ghastly gore of the first scene, we too are somewhat desensitized to the violence and the tension, and unfortunately, despite a litany of conflicts, no subsequent scene achieves that level of visceral shock.

The acting, too, is promising in certain places, but ultimately falls flat, in no small part due to stilted dialogue and lack of established rapport. Christian Bale provides a compelling performance of scarcely concealed rage, which is then laid bare in a memorable silent scene in which Bale screams, pounding and clawing the earth after being forcibly ordered to escort one of his longtime enemies, Chief Yellow Hawk. Unfortunately, the later scenes that are intended to be emotional — Captain Blocker parting from his beloved Corporal Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), a loyal African American soldier part of Blocker’s retinue, and even Captain Blocker’s gracious farewell to Chief Yellow Hawk, spoken in Cheyenne— do not carry the emotional impetus that they could. We are given little indication of the strength of the bond between Captain Blocker and Corporal Woodsen. Captain Blocker’s change in attitude is incredible and lightly strains our credulity. The Native Americans, for their part, fall wholly into the dichotomy of dignified stoics or brutish savages. Virtually no nuance in character development is granted to Chief Yellow Hawk or his family.

While Hostiles contains a few isolated gems— the landscape shots of galloping horses are stunning, and one particularly poignant scene concerning a depressed and hopeless Master Sergeant Metz elevates the dynamics between the characters —, the film is inconsistent and drawn out, leaving us wanting more. Cooper is adept at displaying the gore and brutality of the Western frontier but is unable to capture the quiet empathy that his characters deserve.