Film Review – Hostiles
In an era when every other film is beset with A.D.D. inducing hyper kinetics, the thought of taking ones time can almost appear bold. It’s not easy to let a story breathe, expand, and move at a deliberate pace while still maintaining our interest. Writer/director Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017) takes pleasure in its stillness. This is a western that revels in atmosphere, where what is not said is almost as important as what is. We feel every minute of the near two and half hour runtime, and yet Cooper’s grasp of the material keeps things moving at a steady pace – never going too fast or too slow.
That’s what I took the most out of seeing this. I immersed myself in the beauty of the aesthetics. Masanobu Takayanagi’s camera glides through the wide-open expanses of the wild west with a smooth motion. When characters travel down a field on horseback, the camera flies behind them. Bodies are framed at extreme long shots, engulfed by the size and scope of the landscapes. This is the kind of stuff that John Ford and his crew would do back in the day, where the environments played just as crucial a role as the story and character development. I don’t know if Cooper was influenced by Terrence Malick in any way, but how Cooper places his subjects against their backdrops called to mind similar instances in Malick’s work.
The beauty of the imagery masks some of the shortcomings within the story. Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is a veteran U.S. Cavalry officer whose time in the military seems to be getting the best of him. When we meet him, Joe has received orders from the President to escort a dying Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico back to their tribal lands in Montana near the end of the 19th century. Joe – being the good soldier that he is – accepts the order, but not without caution. Joe has spent years of his career fighting against native tribes, and Yellow Hawk is a known war chief that has fought against the U.S. from invading his land.
And it’s here where we get an idea of what Cooper is getting at. Through this perilous journey, we start to see Joe and Yellow Hawk develop from an antagonistic dynamic to one of mutual respect. The majority of the narrative sees them and the rest of their party traveling, running into various obstacles that could potentially kill them. This includes not only the dangerous terrain, but also enemy tribes and roaming outlaws. Along the way, they pick up a woman named Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) who was left all by herself after her entire family was killed by Comanche bandits.
I admire what Cooper was trying to do here. Through this shared experience, Joe comes to better understand Yellow Hawk and his people, and the devastation they went through when the white man took over. We understand the “hostiles” of title can come from any side of the line. But although Cooper’s intentions were in the right place, the execution undermined it. It is a well-known fact that the depiction of Native Americans is one of the biggest sins in cinema history. Despite Cooper’s efforts to show them through a humanistic lens, this story is still told through the eyes of the white protagonists. It’s Joe’s experience that we go through, it’s his character that goes through the emotional rebirth. Yellow Hawk and his family are depicted as little more than types. Wes Studi, who has a great expressive face, is often tasked to only be stoic as events happen around him. Although Rosalie goes through much torment and agony at the loss of her family, hasn’t Yellow Hawk and his family suffered through similar circumstances, if not more so?
Rosamund Pike is a fine, if not underrated actress. I think this film may contain the first instance where I’ve caught her “acting.” Yes, it’s completely within reason that her character would be a wreck after going through such an experience, but her over the top performance did not feel authentic. I put the reasoning for this on Cooper, who doesn’t get a handle on the tone of her scenes as he does the rest of the narrative. Sometimes, a performance is more heartbreaking when the actor tries to hold the character’s feelings in. Compare Rosalie to Joe. Somehow, despite hiding behind a epically thick mustache, Christian Bale generated more of an emotional response from because of how he tries to stay composed in the worst situations.
Hostiles is not an easy watch. It is dour and unrelenting, with no moments of levity from all the seriousness. But it’s not even that which made it a missed opportunity. We have a situation where a filmmaker had the right idea in mind, and although much of what we see is very pretty to look out, the approach betrayed whatever well-meaning purpose there was.