On paper, everything about Scott Cooper’s latest film reads as a promising awards contender — a brooding Western featuring a weighty performance from Christian Bale and a message about our country’s mistreatment of Native Americans. Instead, Hostiles is receiving a conspicuously quiet release during the peak of January dump-month. The final product offers a clear answer why and a convincing argument that perhaps Cooper should leave writing duties to someone else.
As was the case with his previous two efforts, the Rust Belt revenge thriller Out of the Furnace and the Bawston gangster biopic Black Mass, Hostiles is a technically impressive rendition of a hackneyed and predictable narrative.
Set in the barren plains of 1892 New Mexico, the movie opens with the vicious murder of the husband and children of Rosalie Quaid (a committed Rosamund Pike) at the hands of a villainous group of Native Americans known as the Rattlesnake gang. Beginning with the husband’s scalping and culminating in the shooting of an infant, it’s a scene of startling cruelty that serves two purposes. The first is to explain how a shell-shocked Rosalie eventually crosses paths with Bale’s Army captain Joseph J. Blocker, a racist and rage-filled soldier who’s been forced to escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk to live out his final days in Montana. The second is to key audiences in on the unrelenting nihilistic tone. If Hostiles is about anything, it’s about the futile way in which hatred and violence feed off one another. And the horrors of war.
Oh, God, the horror.
If you sense some snark in my tone, it’s merely a gut reaction to the film’s clumsy and self-serious delivery of themes that have long grown tired in the Western genre. The script offers very little in turns of surprises, as it’s clear from the moment Bale’s callous captain agrees to escort Yellow Hawk that he may just learn a thing or two about his own prejudices and maybe, you know, that the white man may be equally culpable in the destruction that’s been wrought. Regrettably, there isn’t anything deeper here than the poster’s heavy-handed tagline, “We are all… Hostiles.” A bleak and brutal atmosphere is fine, but without a compelling premise, all you’re left with is a squalid exercise in misery porn.
In terms of craftsmanship, Hostiles is no doubt accomplished. Bale’s naturalistic turn as Blocker in particular is noteworthy for the ways his physical language conveys a man who has been groomed by the military to stay composed and alert at all times yet whose experience as a soldier has infused in him a fury that seems to perpetually teem beneath the surface. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi can make a Western landscape look serene one moment and coursing with dread the next. A scene in which a conflicted Blocker digs his fists into the earth against a stormy backdrop is both visually gorgeous and hilariously overwrought. It’s a fitting encapsulation of the film’s struggle between commendable artistry and derivative storytelling.
Another frustrating aspect is how Cooper chooses to handle Native Americans. While Yellow Hawk inevitably proves to be more than the sadistic killer Blocker assumes him to be, he’s ultimately closer to a plot device than an actual character, serving primarily as a tool for our hero’s self-discovery. Blocker’s crew is also stocked with up-and-coming actors (including Jesse Plemons and the seemingly everywhere Timothée Chalamet) who are ultimately given little to do. This movie has plenty of talent to waste.
After a promising directorial debut in Crazy Heart, Cooper’s career has turned into a case where the emperor may not be wearing any clothes. Hostiles isn’t terrible; it’s too well-crafted to sink below stunning mediocrity. Rather, it’s an exasperating and forgettable experience. In a way, that’s the most glaring tragedy of a film steeped in them.