“Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake.” Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike)
Quaid loses her husband and three children (Including a baby) at the hands of Comanche renegades. This happens in the first 10 minutes of the film. If war is hell, what does that make the old west?
Hostiles, written and directed by Scott Cooper, is a dower western about the guilt one carries from a life of violence. If you had any desire to live in the late 19th century, such thoughts would be nixed after seeing this.
Christian Bale stars as Joe Blocker, a Cavalry Captain known for his brutal violence against Native Americans. After more than 20 years of service, he’s ready to leave the life behind. But not before he’s ordered to escort Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), also a notorious killer, and his family from New Mexico to his home in Montana. The government determines he should die there.
After reluctantly agreeing, Blocker and a group of men begin their treacherous journey. They eventually come across Quaid who they agree to take with them.
Cooper’s specialty seems to be damaged characters and he’s always been able to get terrific performances out of those characters. Whether it’s Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning turn as an alcoholic father in Crazy Heart or Woody Harrelson’s psychotic skinhead in Out of the Furnace or Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, these actors respect Cooper’s vision.
But the films themselves have all been mediocre as Cooper prefers style over substance. His interests are in environments and the circumstances that lead characters down a certain path. That’s an interesting theme. But he often undermines story and plot which result in stagnant plots with little to no momentum.
And Hostiles is no different. Bale is once again strong playing Blocker as a stoic and tormented man. He excels at playing characters who are always on the brink of destruction. But Cooper decides to give him an arc of redemption. Unfortunately this leads down a path of white guilt. This is a theme that has become quite prevalent in these types of films.
It doesn’t help that none of the Native American characters are given much to do except occasionally pop in to give the white characters words of wisdom to make them feel better. It’s not only patronizing to the Native American actors, but a waste of their talents. Studi (Dances with Wolves, Heat), Adam Beach (Smoke Signals, Flags of our Fathers) and Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World) have all been terrific in past performances and many where they play Native Americans. But Cooper relegates them to background characters.
He wastes the white actors as well with forgettable turns from Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp and Timothee Chalamet who was superb in Call Me By Your Name. He even relegates Pike to sobbing and cowering for the majority of the film.
What Cooper lacks in character development, he makes up for in beautiful shots of the landscape. Whether it’s the sun rising in a valley, interesting rock formations or the classic western shot of a silhouetted cowboy walking through an open door out into desolate land, Cooper has seen his fare share of westerns, particularly those directed by John Ford.
But it always comes down to the story and the characters within that story. Cooper is so preoccupied with focusing on themes such as PTSD, racism, guilt and pain that he forgets to allow them to be represented through the character’s actions. We won’t care about the characters if they’re nothing more than broad archetypes.
Cooper’s desire for the characters to constantly wallow in misery also slows the film to a meandering pace. The occasional threat is often followed by quiet campfire scenes where characters wax poetic about the things they’ve done and seen.
Cooper focuses on the past when really he should be worrying about the present.
Hostiles offers nothing new to the western genre. It’s a slow, depressing experience with hallow characters and a weak story. Cooper does manage to throw in a somewhat uplifting ending, but by then we don’t care.