Few films are as dreadfully unhappy as Scott Cooper’s new Hostiles, which works to the film’s benefit immensely. A western similar in tone to Dances with Wolves or Unforgiven, the undiscussed horrors of the old west are on full display from the first scene of Hostiles, with an unrelenting sense of dread and discomfort running throughout the remainder of the film.
The film opens with a tribe of Comanche warriors raiding the home of Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), slaughtering her husband and three young children (one an infant) in a cold-blooded, brutal and gory sequence. This events consequences resonate throughout the film, and the remains show the horrors of conflict in the Old West. Looking at the sexism, racism, and tribalism in the territory, writer-director Cooper finds a theme that lifts the movie’s weak plotting and structure.
The main story of the movie follows Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he leads a prisoner, Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico to their home in Montana. Along the way the starting party of ten shrinks and grows constantly, with additions to the group including the grief-stricken Quaid, adding a gun-wielding woman to the pack amongst others.
Hostiles‘s structure becomes incredibly repetitive, with the feeling that an editor could have sliced this film into five episodes without a single change to the story, nothing is lost. The film’s major conflicts seem resolved by its midway point, presenting new problems that only drag the movie out to a bloated 130 minutes. While the battle sequences are capture well, they become stale quickly when they come every half hour and feature some of the most bloody and disturbing deaths I have seen in films.
The action sequences are at least kinetic, however, as the dialogue scenes show the biggest weaknesses of Cooper’s script. With a title like Hostiles (much like Prisoners or Captives) the film’s message should be before the audience takes a seat, though tagline proclaims “we are all hostiles” anyways. This bluntness is equaled in the movie, explaining how the audience is supposed to feel constantly. Captain Blocker is our surrogate, and through him, the audience is shown again and again that, hey, maybe these Native Americans aren’t as bad as he had thought! And, hey, maybe women can fend for themselves! Messages of this kind are forced a few times and directly spoken multiple times, but thankfully don’t kill the movie.
Almost every other element of the movie works very well. The cast is uniformly great, even if the characters aren’t as well drawn. The third lead of the film Studi barely has a character, but nevertheless does a fantastic job. Supporting performances from Ben Foster as a disgraced soldier, Q’orianka Kilcher as Yellow Hawk’s daughter-in-law and Rory Cochrane as Blocker’s second-in-command also stand out. Wonderful as well as the cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi, Scott Cooper’s frequent collaborator from Black Mass and Out of the Furnace. The film beautifully captures the wilderness of America, un-taming the West once more.
Hostiles doesn’t reinvent the Western genre, though it certainly is one of the most brutal variations I’ve seen. The blood and gore hide a fairly strong movie that looks and is acted phenomenally. With a stronger script, the movie would be excellent. Instead, it is merely good.
The film hits theaters this Friday.