Joseph J. Blocker, an army captain working at Fort Berringer, New Mexico, in 1892, is assigned the task of bringing a Cheyenne chief and his family back to their tribe in Montana. Blocker assembles a team and reluctantly takes on the task. Along the way, Blocker confronts his own prejudicial tendencies and faces off the many dangers of the west.
Hostiles draws comparisons with 2015’s Kurt Russell starrer Bone Tomahawk as well as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Both of these films have a revisionist tone that seeks to redress and confront those characteristics of the western which were problematic or simplistic in the past. In spite of such developments, westerns are still viewed by many in a poor light and yet the truth is they provide a far more progressive and interesting range of films than the likes of action films, superhero movies and all those blockbuster types.
Hostiles opens with a violent shock to the system before settling into a pace which revolves around conversations and confrontations, interspersed with occasional, sudden action sequences. For many, such a pace will feel a bit slow, and indeed the editing could have been tighter in parts. However, the writing is so moving, the story so intriguing and backdrops so transporting that this is easily forgiven.
The movie’s great cast is led by Christian Bale, who is truly exquisite in the role of Blocker. As an actor who’s getting older, his character and method here reflect that. Moreover, he conveys a range of piercing emotions through his eyes, his most important acting tool in the film as his character’s large moustache covers his mouth (thus taking away his most obvious expressive tool). This could very well be Bale’s best performance to date, and if it isn’t, it is certainly among his strongest. Rosamund Pike, meanwhile, is extraordinary too, and as with Gone Girl, she evokes a sense of grace and charm in a layered performance.
A star-filled cast (which also includes Stephen Lang, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalamet), however, requires an able director and Scott Cooper has proven through past works like Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and Crazy Heart (the latter of which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar) that he brings something special out in the actors he works with. He handles the screenplay, which he adapted himself from Donald E. Stewart’s manuscript, with deep feeling. Hostile’s dialogue is electric and portrayal of the American landscape striking. The deeply nuanced performances and mesmerising narrative add up to there being much to admire in Hostiles. In the end, it is a simple retelling of a classic lesson of abandoning prejudices. Though set in the past, its intended message is timeless, and it speaks loud and clear.