“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” D.H. Lawrence’s immortal words are the first thing to appear on screen in Scott Cooper’s elegiac western Hostiles.
The film is a sometimes harsh yet elegant look at man’s insatiable penchant for conquest.
Set in the southern US in 1892, the story surrounds Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a bitter Army captain whose fighting days are drawing to a close. Blocker simply wants to collect his pension and attempt to put his dark past behind him; that is until he gets one more assignment.
Block is tasked with escorting a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal lands in Montana. The problem – Block despises Native Americans and spent years taking their lives in brutal combat. Needless to say, he is reluctant to take this final job.
So he saddles up with a group of fellow officers and the fragile alliance sets out across the tumultuous frontier. Along the way they encounter a grieving woman (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family was recently slaughtered by a Comanche war party.
Westerns are a rare sight in Hollywood these days. The once proud and profitable genre spent decades keeping the movie business burgeoning but is now hard to come by and isn’t always a big seller at the box office when it comes to today’s mainstream audience.
This is perhaps what makes Hostiles so uniquely refreshing.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass) – who also adapted the screenplay – has crafted a moving meditation on the nature of violence and the toll it takes on the human condition.
Hostiles is essentially more concerned with genuine emotion and character-building than rushed pacing and bombastic fight scenes. Granted, there is plenty of action, much of it quite harrowing, but it always fittingly advances the story.
Instead, a fascinating interplay among a diverse group of characters is served up. These elements range from deeply personal moments of grief and trauma to expanded themes that deal with America’s bloody colonial history and its controversial treatment of the country’s indigenous people.
Whether the issues explored are big or small they give the viewer numerous reasons to ponder some serious subject matter.
Lead star Christian Bale does fantastic work in this movie. He plays a complex, tortured character at loggerheads with his psyche about how to move on from terrible bloodshed in the face of reconciliation. British actress Rosamund Pike adds a healthy dose of credibility to the mix as a devastated woman with no idea what the future holds.
In fact, the entire ensemble is impressive with particular emphasis on veteran Wes Studi, who remains as dignified as ever.
Rory Cochrane also churns out an especially haunting performance as a war-weary sergeant struggling with his bloody past. His character effectively examines how PTSD affected soldiers during this time period.
Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous. It’s loaded with arresting visual and stunning landscapes. Even Max Richter’s (The Leftovers, Miss Sloane) sweeping musical score provides stirring accompaniment.
Those looking for wall-to-wall action may be disappointed. The somewhat languid pace and sporadic long moments of quiet reflection (no dialogue) might be tedious for some. And in the end, the screenplay’s evaluation of human nature’s cyclical violence doesn’t break any new narrative ground.
But despite very minor issues, this film is a welcome addition to an often overlooked and, sadly, dwindling genre.
The movie’s tone delicately walks a fine line between beauty and calamity while sensitively examining the nature of tragedy, guilt, and forgiveness. It is competently-crafted and mature cinematic storytelling.
Hostiles earns a well-deserved 4 out of 5 pieces of popcorn.
Playing at a theatre near you. Rated 14A and is 135 minutes long.