In 1892, Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered to escort the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal land in Montana, them having been imprisoned at a New Mexico fort for seven years; this is an assignment that the prejudiced Blocker really doesn’t want to do, having seen many close friends brutally killed by the Chief, and he keeps all guns pointed at the family throughout the trek. Along the way, Blocker’s unit encounters the distraught Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose husband and children were mercilessly slaughtered by invading Comanche, and with danger continually close, Blocker and Rosalie soon begin to start trusting the Cheyenne family as they make their way towards their destination.
As can be expected with most high quality westerns, Hostiles has some stunning cinematography and spot-on production design; the sets and locations all look authentic and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) makes the most out of the landscape and treats us to some gorgeous, tranquil exterior visuals that Hostiles has in spades. The brooding, sweeping, Red Dead Redemption style score also helps a great deal in establishing mood and overall, Cooper’s direction is on the money as he gets the very best out of his actors and allows us to support the unit on their journey as the accompanying powerful themes often hit home. He also manages to create a sense of menace and danger, especially at the very beginning and in a completely unexpected scene at the end, and the gunfights are shot competently – although an early confrontation with the Comanche is quite hurried and frantic, not allowing us to properly see exactly what’s going on.
And alongside the impressive visuals, the film’s actors are all a mighty fine bunch and deliver some pretty powerful performances. Christian Bale plays the initially prejudiced, Ethan Edwards-type army officer who is forced into escorting Chief Yellow Hawk back to Montana, still angry and bitter about how Yellow Hawk’s people once brutally murdered his close friends. Bale makes the transition from apathetic, prejudiced soldier to being a wiser and more tolerant man with ease (quite often taking tips from the “Tom Hardy school of grunting”!) and is a strong, determined presence throughout. Rosamund Pike also gets to go on a similar journey with her character, understandably full of hate and fear after her family is massacred by the Comanche, gradually developing an affectation for Yellow Hawk and his family; Pike gets to show off a range of differing emotions, very often making a powerful impact with just her facial expressions and eye movements and she fits in well in this cinematic world. And the other main role is taken by Mystery Men‘s Wes Studi, who plays the wise Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk; he says very little (the very definition of the strong, silent type) but he is extremely dignified in his role and the scenes he shares with Christian Bale are very intriguing.
There are also plenty of recognisable names in the supporting cast: Jesse Plemons (boy, he’s in a lot nowadays!) is good as the soldier who has never killed before, Peter Mullan puts in a welcome performance (thankfully speaking in his natural Scottish accent, rather than going with an American one), Ben Foster is in his element as the untrustworthy, racist prisoner who the unit has to escort along the way, and Adam Beach gains plenty of kudos points in his fine role of Yellow Hawk’s son – a FAR more useful character than Suicide Squad‘s tragic Slipknot! Oh, and the (apparently) beloved Timothée Chamalet is in this film but he’s not in it for long and his lines, delivered in a slurring French accent, are too difficult to understand.
But while the film looks and feels great and the performances are commendable, there isn’t enough of an original story to make Hostiles stand out among the other heavyweights of this particular film genre. Although the customary themes of forgiveness and redemption are put forward with the best of intentions, coupled with the fact that a cross-country Western trek, set against beautiful scenery, is always welcome, the story isn’t that original and many of the Western genre elements within are those we’ve undoubtedly seen before. Strangely, not a lot actually happens and there’s quite a bit of padding as many scenes feature characters just talking to each other about their lives and there are far too many instances of the unit simply setting up camp – unfortunately, the umpteenth time that they camp out, it appears far too repetitive. There’s also a lack of proper antagonists; the Comanche threat doesn’t last long so all the film seems to be about is the journey to Montana, which, looking back, is relatively smooth sailing.
But this is a character driven piece and there are several characters who go through their own personal trials, each actor baring their soul quite admirably. At the end of the day, Hostiles probably won’t be remembered as a classic of the genre given its lack of an original, eventful story, but I’d say that its worth seeing on the big screen because of its lovely visuals, general ambience and genuine, emotive performances.