Hostiles opens with an Indian tribe riding up on a homestead and murdering a family including two young girls and an infant child. The only survivor is Rosamund Pike who wallows in her manic sorrow while clutching the body of her baby. So yeah, it’s pretty cheerful.
This film follows the story of Christian Bale, a strongwilled Indian killer who has been ordered to escort an aging Indian Chief to his final resting place. Along the way, many people die and Bale naturally learns a lesson about how violence is prevalent in all the hearts of man, regardless of the color of their skin. Hostiles doesn’t mince words. People die in very very brutal ways and this underlying message of the hostile nature of humanity is painted across every scene with a very thick brush. I’m a little disappointed with how…easy everything was accomplished in this film. Bale’s shift towards liking the Indians seemingly happens out of nowhere within the first thirty minutes of the runtime and is really only echoed by all the people around him. There were multiple scenes in which characters, living in the wild west, explained in no uncertain terms that the way Americans treated the natives was wrong and “inhumane.” Now, this is a nice sentiment and one that is clearly obvious by modern moral standards but is very anachronistic for the time period in which this is set. This overtone of native recompense is cheapened by the fact that it is echoed by nearly every character in the film. It would have been a lot more powerful and realistic if one member of the squad believed they should be nice to their native companions and was put at odds with the rest of the group. Perhaps you could have a great scene in which one of them tries to kill the Indian Chief and Christian Bale has to stop him, realizing that he sees them as equals. I don’t know, I’m just throwing ideas around, but this could have been a lot more interesting. As for the hate message, rather than being an intricate look at how hate only causes more hate a la Three Billboards, the writer/director Scott Cooper felt it would be more productive to simply beat the idea into your head, creating a mental image of the screenplay coming at you with a baseball bat adorned with the words “Don’t kill each other, you’ll just be sad.”
Now, if you ignore the heavy-handedness of the film’s message, it remains pretty well directed and acted. It is long and depressing, but that’s kind of what you expect out of a good western. To its credit, even though the runtime handily exceeds two hours, it is paced very well, mostly keeping your attention through to the end. Christian Bale is good in the movie, though the hard-edged weepy tough guy act is not exactly the hardest role to pull off. No offense. Though what lowers his performance on a relative scale is the fact that every other male in the movie is a hard-edged weepy tough guy. So…why am I supposed to care more about him than the other dudes with the mustaches? Rosamund Pike gives a great performance. She starts out the movie very strongly with some insanely well-written and acted scenes but, as the plot wears on, it’s as if the screenplay simply couldn’t figure out what to do with her. She starts out the movie as a depressed mental patient, then goes through many cycles of being a noir-esque nag, a damsel in distress, an empowered frontier woman, and a cowering mother. She’s good at all of these roles because she’s Rosamund Pike, but her abilities could have been accented more if they’d simply picked one hat and stuck to it.
Ultimately I enjoyed my time with Hostiles. It is a mostly well-made film despite its severe aversion to subtlety. It’s not going to be anything special, I mean, no one’s going to hang the poster on the wall next to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But, if you are a supporter of the dying western genre, it is worth your time. I’d just recommend staying for the performances and not the pontifications.
All images are from Hostiles, a film by Grisbi Productions