Racism. Hatred. Violence. These are not concepts exclusive to the modern era. In fact, America’s history is steeped in shame over atrocities committed in the name of “freedom”. Those moments when the color of your skin served as a clear and present danger to anyone in opposition. Hostiles takes us back to a time of cowboys vs. Indians, where both sides had reason to revolt against the other, and neither deserved a clear conscience when the dust settled. And through it all, the message of the film ultimately reveals itself – almost ironically – as tolerance.
Director Scott Cooper’s Hostiles begins in absolute horror. A young mother, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), is enjoying a little home schooling with her three girls as her husband tends to their ranch. It is a peaceful, blissful moment as a family. The American Dream. Then, tragedy marches on their door.
Moving on, we meet Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), just shy of retirement from this life of mutilation and brutality. He has an enormous chip on his shoulder with the Native American population after suffering many losses of men under his command, all at their hands. He is ready for leave when his Colonel (Stephen Lang) advises him that he will need to carry out that ole’ movie trope of “one last mission”. The problem is, this mission involves escorting and releasing a notorious killer of men, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico to his Montana homeland.
The film is fairly straight forward from here, as Blocker battles savages of every ethnicity in their path, his blistering hatred for Yellow Hawk and his kind, and his own preconceived notions about humanity, all while also escorting Rosalie to safety. The film functions as a mishmash of cultures and beliefs as all three of our primary players wrestle with their own respective disgust with each other.
In terms of Scott Cooper’s screenplay, the film is rudimentary at best. There is nothing here you haven’t seen before in a thousand westerns, no twist that will spark the audience into oohs and ahhs. It’s basically a Red Dead Redemption escort mission with havoc, racism, and personal growth along the way.
Where Hostiles DOES rise above the predictable nature of its script, is in the stellar performances from Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. In fact, this might be the best performance from Bale in years. He portrays Blocker as an honorable man whose racism stems not solely from upbringing, but from personal experience as well. It is earned bigotry, in his mind.
Blocker’s revelations or maturity as the film continues do not rise from some random epiphany, they lift from that very same experience. As he witnesses a nurturing and paternal side to Yellow Hawk and his kin, alongside their growing relationship with Rosalie, it awakens him to a deeper comprehension of where all of them stand. As Blocker is a dutiful soldier, the majority of Christian Bale’s performance is restrained and focused, yet those glimpses of a fractured soul contained within his steely gaze are a powerful tool in Bale’s acting arsenal, breathing life into a cinematic caricature.
Rosamund Pike is given a tougher task, as the majority of her role is drowning in sorrow. Her journey becomes the most harrowing of them all, as nowhere does she fail to encounter the worst in humanity. As overdone and extreme as her role is written, Pike elevates the proceedings by enrapturing us with her resolve and blind determination to never falter. And also, her wondrous way of maintaining compassion throughout a literal Hell on Earth.
Wes Studi, an actor I’ve admired for many years, is given little to showcase his natural talent, but he makes every miniscule moment shine. The remainder of the cast are little more than bullet and arrow fodder, barely registering a mention as they are brought down screaming or simply depart into the wild.
Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Out of the Furnace) is an actor’s director. He paints on a canvas that allows performances to breathe and develop. At times, this approach can draw the proceedings out, yet typically it affords Bale and Pike an opportunity to create a spark, lighting fire to their surroundings in an instant. And even though the insane amount of hostiles Blocker and company encounter borders on ludicrous, Cooper’s eye for spontaneous brutality is enthralling to watch.
Hostiles is an elementary script bolstered by two Oscar-caliber performances from Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, complimented with several scenes of nightmarish intensity. All of which lead to a film that fails to reach its full potential, yet manages to deliver its message of unity and understanding right on time.
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi
Screenplay by Scott Cooper
Directed by Scott Cooper