IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 132 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The Old West 1892: Rosalie Quaid has her husband and three children killed by Comanche Indians. Meanwhile Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a man who has great hatred for the Native Americans and who “has taken more scalps than Sitting Bull himself”, is ordered to escort the imprisoned, cancer-suffering Chief Yellow Hawk and his family back to his homeland so he can die there. Along the way the company finds Rosalie, while the same murderous Comanches are on their trail….
Westerns will never become as popular as they were decades ago, being a genre that sadly probably comes across as outdated to many, but every now and again one or two still come along, and the latest is Hostiles, which is firmly in the tradition of most recent examples of the genre in being a slow, brooding piece with its action being quick and spread thinly [the surprisingly good remake of The Magnificent Seven being perhaps the most notable exception]. Hostiles rather oddly seems to recall both traditional westerns and the more recent revisionist kind [Ulzana’s Raid seems to me to have been a distinct influence] at the same time, sometimes seeming like it’s trying to serve as a commentary on the evolution of the genre, though it never quite succeeds in being that. However, it is still a fairly impressive piece of work that has a lot to say about the sheer pointlessness of conflict, the corrosive effect of righteousness, prejudice and hatred, and the futility of trying to civilise a wild land built on violence, while only occasionally coming across as being overly didactic. It’s brutal and even uncompromising – it’s not afraid of killing off people you like – but it finishes with a feeling of positivity. And it may very well have Christian Bale’s best performance to this date, and this is coming from someone who feels that, while he can be very good indeed, he doesn’t always really nail the parts he’s given.
It opens in quite harrowing fashion with a scene perhaps intended to recall The Searchers, with Rosalie’s husband scalped and her two older kids killed. She manages to escape cradling her youngest, though it’s pretty obvious that he’s dead too. We switch to Indian hater Captain Joseph J. Blocker being given the last assignment he would ever want. For seven years the fort he’s at has served as a prison for aging, ailing Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk but Washington has decreed that the chief can return to his tribal home in Montana to die, along with his family. Blocker is so opposed to the order that he at first seems willing to be court martialed rather than accept it. After all, he and Yellow Hawk are mortal enemies, each having killed off many of the other’s friends. But he eventually accepts and recruits a few others to help him do the job, though once away from the eyes of his commanding officer Colonel Abraham Biggs, he insists that the Indians are chained and the wife and two daughters have their hair unbraided just out of spite. Bale conveys brilliantly the idea of a man consumed by violence and hatred, who’s had years of pain and rage, his haunted eyes radiating suffering. You’ll probably dislike the character for quite a while, but a kinder side rears its head when the company comes across poor Rosalie. Rosamund Pike is also magnificent, superbly acting her character’s shock. Moments like when she becomes terrified of the Native Americans along for the ride, or when she insists on burying her family herself and just tears up the earth with her bare hands, are quite upsetting.
Blocker sees to Rosalie’s every need but the same Comanches are nearby and Yellow Hawk has to convince Blocker that he and his son would be more handy in a fight if they had their chains off. The group is never far from examples of both Indian and white violence, and then they arrive at a fort where Blocker’s asked to escort Sergeant Charles Wills, who’s murdered an Indian family, to where he’s to be tried as it’s only a slight diversion from his route. Of course Blocker’s killed loads of Indians too, including probably women and kids [and one of the other soldiers does a variation on Clint Eastwood’s classic “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawls” quote from Unforgiven], but he was only doing his job, a perhaps strange code of honour meaning that he treats Woodsen like the vicious criminal he is. But then maybe Blocker, following the lead of Rosalie, is beginning to recover his humanity by learning to grant the Indians theirs? His change is maybe a bit too sudden to be totally convincing, but his conflict with Wills, both of them having been at Wounded Knee [the final major conflict of the Indian wars which was basically a massacre], adds more meat to the story.
The fifth film from Scott Walker [Crazy Heart, Black Mass], is content to move forward very leisurely, dawdelling on dialogue-heavy sequences which another director would probably have cut or not shot at all. Many of these do emphasise the film’s themes, like a conversation at a dinner table where the wife professes sympathy for the Indians and the husband tells her to stop, though were occasionally too on the nose for my liking, and I could also have done with less chat over dimly lit campfires – a bit more variety wouldn’t have gone amiss. But unless you require some gun play every ten minutes in your Westerns, boredom should certainly not be an issue, and the action is extremely well handled and actually rather frightening because, as the film progresses, you begin to realise that just about anybody could receive a bullet. Some of the nastiest stuff isn’t shown, most notably during a night time raid on a camp where the intruders – who are actually the good guys rescuing some of their number – burst into some tents which we know their enemies are in and we just hear them hacking them to death. Blocker is merciless throughout, and I couldn’t really believe that Rosalie may begin to have a serious liking for someone whom she sees running after someone he’s wounded with a bullet and gut him with his knife. She even calls him “a good man”.
The camerawork is swift for the gunplay but is otherwise content to hold back. One fight scene in the mud just has the camera slowly pan out from the combatants. Walker and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi like to pit the characters against the landscapes in the classic Western style, and there’s even some John Ford-style shots of silhouetted riders on horseback and Ford-style framing of scenes. But Max Richter’s extremely brooding, almost abstract score, making use of the yaybahar an odd Turkish acoustic instrument, is very much of today yet still fits in very well with the visuals. And there’s no romanticising of the American frontier here. While we’re left in no doubt that both sides are as bad as each other, we’re still constantly reminded of the fact that this is land that’s being taken from others. In terms of the Indian characters, most of them could have done with having more to do, but set against that is Wes Studi giving the film’s third great performance. His character Yellow Hawk is in some ways the heart and soul of the piece, and the script resists the temptation to mainly make him into a device to prick Blocker’s conscience and turn him into a better person.
The central theme is of course the need to let go of hate, something expressed throughout and only sometimes seeming heavy handed. It helps that all the performances are good, right down to the minor characters. The film’s PC credentials only really get out of hand in an unconvincing moment when the African-American Corp Henry Woodsen gets medical treatment in a place he probably wouldn’t have even been allowed in. Overall there’s a simple honesty and a commendable passion in what Walker is saying which should leave you both angry at what we are and hopeful that things may change. The surprisingly moving, yet understated, final scene conveys this whilst providing a slight variation on the old Western cliche of the man who can’t be a part of civilisation. It would have been just perfect if it had ended 30 seconds before it does – but unfortunately it has a surprising and unconvincing coda – though that could be just me being an old cynic.