I’m a big Western fan. It is an iconic American art form interwoven with our national identity. Since it has been around for more than a century, we’ve seen just about every kind — the straightforward western, the deconstructed western, the Japanese western, and even the sci-fi western. But it does bug me that there are so few made today, given that filmmaking technology and cultural sensitivity have both come a long way since the golden age of the Western. Plus, Westerns, like science fiction, are a great canvas on which to project the issues of the day. We have plenty of issues in need of reinterpretation outside of our overly charged political climate.
By cultural sensitivity, I don’t mean just taking Cowboys = good guys and Indians = bad guys and flipping it. That reeks too much of the “noble savage” idea, and can be as one dimensional as the reverse. I mean recognizing that there were many different nations in the American west, each with their own cultural heritage. And we are all better off when actual Native Americans play their ancestors in the films, instead of white actors in makeup.
HOSTILES is a fascinating modern updating of the Western, while at the same time being a throwback. It feels gritty, real, complex, violent, and authentic on a level that few Westerns have achieved. It has plenty of action, though it is primarily character driven. And it features an Oscar-worthy performance by Christian Bale in the lead.
HOSTILES takes place in the 1892 — small groups of Native Americans continued to be at war with settlers from the east, but the great nations who had occupied the land have been decimated. The film opens with the brutal slaughter of a family of white settlers by a band of Comanche. Only Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) survives. We then change focus. Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family are imprisoned by the US government, but the chief is dying of cancer. President Harrison has ordered that he be freed and escorted north so that he can die on his ancestral land. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered to take charge of the mission, since he knows the region and speaks the language. However, he’s also one of the worst possible candidates, since he lost dozens of men in a brutal war against the very man his is supposed to protect.
Under duress Captain Blocker assembles a party to at least begin the journey (though he has no plans to finish it), and along the way comes across the widow Rosalie in the aftermath of the massacre. They add her to crew on their fraught journey, along with a prisoner, Phillip Wills (Ben Foster) on his way to execution. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but I will say that the body count in HOSTILES is just south of THE WILD BUNCH. To that end the tension runs high throughout, both between the characters in the party and between them and the external threats.
The writing in HOSTILES is solid, based on an unproduced screenplay by Donald Stewart (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, PATRIOT GAMES), who died in 1999. Director Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART, BLACK MASS) also gets a screenwriting credit. His direction, and the camera work of Masanobu Takayanagi are also top tier, balancing chaotic action with intimate fireside shots. The film wasn’t shot in IMAX, but I saw it projected onto the IMAX screen at TIFF and it looked gorgeous.
One thing I wish we had more of in the film is time with Yellow Hawk. Wes Studi (AVATAR, HEAT, LAST OF THE MOHICANS) is a great actor, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here other than be a foil to Christian Bale’s character. There’s a reason for that — we get to know the character to the extent that Captain Blocker is willing to, though I still would have like to have seen his role fleshed out more. For better or worse, the narrative thrust of the film is focused on Christian Bale. He delivers up to his usual standard as the stoic tough guy who is pushed beyond his ability.
Finally there is one more thing about HOSTILES that leaves me unsettled. We end up sympathizing with Christian Bale’s Captain Blocker, though he’s unquestionably a bad guy. I’ve been thinking about it for days. I have complex feelings about that, but I don’t want to get into it in this review, because it could take us into spoiler territory. I’ll just say this, it is a remarkable cinematic achievement to make us sympathize with someone who has done awful things.
HOSTILES is all the more impressive given the the film was shot independently, albeit on an exceptionally large indie budget of $40-ish million. Maybe because of the high price tag, it is one of the more remarkable films out of the TIFF that still hasn’t sold yet. With any luck, a distributor will snap it up soon so that Christian Bale can be in the running for this year’s Best Actor race. I hope so. There just aren't enough good Westerns being made these days.