Necessarily bleak and often terribly unpleasant, “Hostiles” is a rough viewing experience. But experiencing it can be rewarding and informative.
Taking place in 1892, the story follows Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) as he escorts Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from incarceration to a more friendly settlement. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer, and the relocation is seen as a civilized move that may help with on-going hostilities. Scarred by war, Blocker doesn’t want to make the trip with his once fierce adversary Yellow Hawk. But orders are orders. And while he despises the Chief, it is clear that the two men have a begrudging respect for one another. And they act harsh and masculine meaning that talk is replaced by action, which is often violent.
Violence is a part of the country. The film makes it clear from the opening scenes that the line between good and evil is filled with shades of gray. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart” and “Black Mass”) is no stranger to graphic displays of violence, and taking a page from the Peckinpah school (see 1969’s “The Wild Bunch”), he demonstrates an instinctive command making the viewer feel the terror of that time powerfully. Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) plays the surviving member of her family that is ravaged as the film opens and these horrifyingly tragic scenes stick with you thereafter.
“Hostiles” is a bit of a road picture as the trek across the dangerous territory progresses. Cooper populates the film with many interesting faces. And every character is damaged by war and the harsh conditions. Understandably, this makes the movie a real drag. Yes, watching “Hostiles” is just no damned fun.
But Cooper’s goal isn’t to romanticize the American frontier. Here he want to put it on display warts and all. And this uncompromising commitment makes this movie more akin to Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” than Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” And frankly, it makes “Hostiles” a hard film to recommend. Readers who loved, say, James Mangold’s excellent 2007 remake of 1957’s “3:10 to Yuma,” will be in for a shock while watching this Western. Cooper’s vision makes you feel the danger of that time like few films I can remember, but it might prove to be frustrating to mainstream audiences.
Performances are uniformly good with Bale, Studi, and Pike in excellent form. Supporting cast is deep and committed with the production creating a convincing snapshot of the time—no fake beards are apparent.
So, given the bleakness and unpleasantness on display, who is “Hostiles” for? Western diehards will certainly find it essential viewing, however, this is a modern take on the genre, which may exasperate purists. And the rest of us will have to pop a mood elevator prior to taking it in, because “Hostiles” is a dark, depressing tale.