Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a western made up of other and better westerns. It is a revisionist western that does not realize that all westerns are revisionist in some form or another. It’s aim is confusing and tiresome. I’m not alone though. I don’t think Hostiles knows it’s aim either.
Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) is tasked with escorting Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) home to his Cheyenne reservation. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer and the powers that be have decided he should die at home. It’s implied the reason is more to do with public perception and backroom politics than any kind of basic decency. Since that is somewhat interesting Hostiles drops it almost immediately.
We know under the Captain’s tough exterior beats the heart of an intellectual. How do we know? Because we see him reading Julius Caesar of course. Stoic and intense Blocker could be a fascinating character played to perfection by Bale. Blocker is after all the archetypal Bale character, except here there is nothing for Bale to explore. I’m all for stoicism in westerns but at some point, you have to wonder if maybe Bale isn’t just sleeping with his eyes open.
Blocker of course protests the assignment. He and Yellow Hawk have met before in battle. “I hate him. I have a war bag of reasons to hate him.” So of course, over the course of the movie the two men will gradually discover that they are more alike than different. Gradually Blocker will come to the realization that maybe, just maybe, the Natives are fighting for survival.
Except before they get a day’s ride from the fort they run into Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), who’s entire family has been killed by Comanches. Block and his men take her in and help her bury her dead. Hostiles then becomes about grief and the weight of murder and violence on the soul of the people who commit it and the innocents it affects.
Until they reach Fort Winslow and then they take a detour to take a prisoner Sergeant Willis (Ben Foster) to see justice. Now Hostiles is about how Sergeant Willis and Captain Blocker are the opposite sides of the same coin. The difference being that as Blocker says, “I was just doing my job.”
Studi’s Yellow Hawk is largely a background fixture. Despite being the entire engine for the plot, Hostiles has surprisingly little use for Yellow Hawk or his family. Oh, didn’t I mention Yellow Hawk’s family was with them as well? His son Black Hawk (Adam Beach) and his wife Elk Hawk (Q’orianka Kilcher) are along for the journey. As well as Black Hawk and Elk Woman’s son Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief). Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty) is either Yellow Hawk’s wife or sister. We are told at the beginning what her relationship is but since we almost never hear from her again except for a scene where she is kidnapped and beaten by fur traders, it’s hard to remember.
More than anything though, Hostiles wants to be taken seriously. An act I was more than prepared to do for the first twenty minutes or so. Although it may not have been actually twenty minutes, it may have just felt like it.
I’m all for movies that take their time. Movies after all are an art form where time is almost an abstract figure. But Hostiles is one of the more tedious movies I’ve sat through in recent memory. It drags and drags, making sure you feel every minute slip away into the ether. Maybe that was the point, to make the audience feel the same aching boredom the early settlers felt as they made their trek through the western frontier.
Scott Cooper adapted the screenplay from the manuscript of Donald E. Stewart. There’s an old line about “When the fact becomes legend; print the legend.” I’m not sure how much is creative license and how much is strict adherence to factual detail. I just know I didn’t care about anything that happened in Hostiles
A character, Wilks (Bill Camp), utters the line “I’ve killed everything’s that walked or talked at some point. Man, woman, and child.” For those playing along at home, this is one of the more infamous lines from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Homages are fine but they run the risk of reminding you of other movies you could be watching instead.
We’re treated to seemingly endless shots of the caravan travelling across magnificent vistas on horseback. Cooper and his cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi somehow manage to turn the breathless American landscape into stale scenic filler. If you’ve seen one shot of a band of travelers riding across magnificent vistas on horseback, you’ve seen them all. Hostiles has them all too, from every angle.
By the end of Hostiles, Blocker has seemingly come around to understanding Yellow Hawk and his people. We don’t know how or why. Aside from a few action sequences the Hawks are largely just there to remind everyone Natives exist. Far from being revisionist, Hostiles is disappointingly, not just another western, but it’s not even a good one.
Hostiles has no idea what to do with all these characters, Native or otherwise. Studi can play this type of role in his sleep. The wise beleaguered Native who is haunted by his past but has made peace with it because now it’s his time to die. With the exception of one scene, Cooper never allows us to see Yellow Hawk interact with his family. Little Bear gives Yellow Hawk a bird egg. It’s a small scene but it’s touching and effective all the same.
Great character actors stop in from time to time to try and alleviate the pretentious pall of boredom. Ben Foster’s Sgt. Willis is a grim and dour character that does nothing but add to the feeling of the story being adrift. Stephen Lang fares much better as Col Biggs, who gives us a glimpse of a better, sharper, more interesting movie. These lucky happy few though get to leave after only a short time. We, however, are are left with this interminable movie.
Scott Cooper has no doubt seen a great many westerns. It’s obvious with every frame that he admires and love this uniquely American film genre. It’s a pity a better movie couldn’t come from it.