I’m up for any Western these days, and Hostiles, per the genre, is a solid effort. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it is firmly in the post-modern Western category, where Indians are seen sympathetically. But, it is too long and lugubrious, and may remind you of better Westerns.
The first images are of a family of settlers in New Mexico in 1892. By that date, according to my own knowledge, the Indian Wars were over, but the family is wiped out by a band of Comanches. There is only one survivor, the mother, Rosamund Pike, clutching her bloodied dead baby in her arms.
Meanwhile, a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has petitioned for release from prison. It has been granted, and he and his family are to be escorted back to their homeland. Escorting him will be Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who does so reluctantly. Blocker hates Indians, referring to them as savages, and especially Studi, who butchered three of his friends.
But Bale is ordered to do, or lose his pension. He assembles a small detail, including his old friend Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is suffering from what they called melancholia, but now is known as PTSD; a West Point lieutenant (Jesse Plemons); a black corporal (Jonathan Majors); and a French private (the suddenly ubiquitous Timothee Chalamet). Of course, one by one these men will die or otherwise leave the film. They will also add others, as Bale picks up a murderous soldier (Ben Foster) in Colorado.
The premise of the movie is that we’re all people under the skin, a kind of Kumbaya message. Of course, Bale will come to rethink his opinion of Yellow Hawk. But after all his years in the Army, this never occurred to him? It’s sort of like A Christmas Carol in the mountains, but without three ghosts.
Cooper has clearly seen a lot of Westerns, because he lifts from some. There’s the scene of lightning during a march, as from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (which was an accidental bit of good fortune), a shot with a man outside a cabin, shot from inside (like the end of The Searchers) and two speeches that may not be word for word but are certainly familiar in tone to one from Unforgiven and another from Lonesome Dove. That, as well as being similar in message to films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves.
The pacing of the film is uneven, and only Bale’s performance holds it together. Though it seems simplistic to think he just needs to be around an Indian in order to respect one, Bale sells it.
As any movie set in the Old West should be, Hostiles is gorgeous, with some spectacular footage of the outdoors, from New Mexico to Colorado to Montana. We can only be glad that land is still not been commercialized.