Cinema: 'Hostiles' Is a Bleak, Unrewarding Journey
Hostiles is, very clearly, a western made in the revisionist tradition. Like Unforgiven, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, it is a film that's fascinated with stripping away the romantic facade of the Old West, and digging into the ugly, tattered morality that touched Anglo-Saxon and indigenous peoples alike. It revels in its obtuse structure, its melancholia, its sweeping, meditative imagery. It has unmistakable aspirations to be a classic. Sadly, the film gets so caught up with this profound window dressing that it forgets to say anything of actual profundity.
The film's grim outlook is established through the opening scenes. In the first, we meet Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a loving mother whose family is butchered by members of the Comanche tribe. The violence depicted is short and brutal, no doubt as a way of building our hatred towards the natives. Next, we're introduced to Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who joins his soldiers in humiliating a member of the Cheyenne tribe in front of his family. Our hatred shifts. Now, illustrating brutality on both sides, and calling into question who the film’s true "hostiles" are is a promising angle, but it's one that writer/director Scott Cooper inexplicably ditches in favor of ponderous silences. Lots and lots of ponderous silences.
That’s not to say I’m opposed to silence, but rather that Hostiles tells us so little about the characters that their silences fail to carry much dramatic weight. Bale is one of the most captivatingly quiet actors working today, with handsome, angular features and an innate sadness informing everything he does, but Captain Blocker is such a cypher that you start to wonder whether he has a grasp on the character. He is either inconsolably angry or emotionally absent, and it's never made clear with either. The same goes for his attitude towards Black Hawk (Wes Studi), the aging Cheyenne he’s been tasked with transporting across the country. Their relationship, forged in battle and bigotry, gradually turns into one of mutual respect, but we get to see very little of it develop onscreen.
Once again, a compelling seed of an idea is kept from blossoming. Cooper much prefers scenes of Blocker, with his bushy mustache and army garb, staring out into an open field, until one of his soldiers tell him it's time to move out. Never mind that these soldiers are played by talented thespians like Timothée Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane, or that Pike is an Oscar nominee herself, the film seemingly has nothing for them to do besides stand in the background, look forlorn, and ask Blocker if he's doing alright (spoilers: he's not).
There are so many instances where I feel like Cooper is willfully embracing the worst tendencies of a director like Terrence Malick-- which is to say, wasting a vastly talented cast in the pursuit of an “epic” aesthetic. Malick’s Days of Heaven is an obvious touchstone here, both in look and feel, but even then, Malick has a better eye when it comes to serene imagery. Cooper is at his best when he’s telling pulp stories like Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, and while those films have their problems, there's still a lurid quality that makes them attractive. With Hostiles, the luridness is dispersed so sparingly, and the imagery so egregiously, that you feel punished by its 133-minute runtime instead of rewarded.
Regardless of how you want to approach it, Hostiles is a disappointment. Its flaws are especially upsetting because it fails in the very ways it promises to deliver-- it is a character study that forgets to lend credence to its characters, and a parable about humanity that loses sight of its message. Hostiles does turn out to be a fitting title, in so much as I developed strong feelings of hostility while watching it. You're better off waiting for the next western that comes down the pipe.