The American Old West has always been a point of fascination for many filmmakers. It’s a tradition in the art form that has gone through so many different iterations. From John Ford’s “Cowboys and Indians” shoot-em-ups to Sam Peckinpah’s nihilistic bloodbaths, Westerns are more than just a popular genre, they contextualize how we envision our past. Scott Cooper, no stranger to violent dramas, has taken his own stab at the Western with “Hostiles.” It’s a film with an ever-present sense of bleakness with the weight of America’s violent history weighing down on its shoulders. Unfortunately, a dour tone isn’t enough to sustain a movie. “Hostiles” wears the clothes of a revisionist Western, but it doesn’t have that much to say beyond “America kinda sucked.”
Before we get into the problems of the movie, it is important to show a glimpse of its potential. Similar to “Black Mass,” Scott Cooper manages to craft a few scenes that practically simmer with an ever-present sense of tragedy. Take, for instance, a scene where Christian Bale’s character discusses his tragic past with a fellow soldier. It’s the first time we see this ornery person open up and it brings forth a surprisingly honest moment that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the movie’s mannered cynicism. Additionally, the way the film handles Rosamund Pike’s character’s grief felt raw and honest (until it doesn’t, but more on that later). There’s one particularly effective scene where she demands to bury her family by herself, desperately digging graves with her bare hands before giving up and allowing the Union soldiers to use shovels. These scenes have a raw sincerity that hints at a better movie.
Unfortunately, most scenes in Hostiles end up as a lot of posturing on the nature of war and violence. These are valid topics, sure, but they’re often done with no real sense of perspective. Bale’s character discusses his troubled past with various other soldiers, but all these conversations just end up saying that they’ve both done bad stuff in their past and they feel guilty about it. These ideas wouldn’t be that abrasive if they were introduced at the beginning of the film, but the script literally just reintroduces them throughout the entirety of the movie without any real development. It makes for a monotonous, repetitive experience.
Christian Bale delivers a typically effective performance as Joseph Blocker, a soldier with a reputation for his violent racism towards Native Americans. Here, the first half of the film handles Blocker’s character pretty well. We really do get a sense of his history and how that’s affected him. It’s made especially effective by Bale’s reserved, haunted performance. For such a talky movie, it’s really Bale’s facial expressions and mannerisms that are able to convey who this character is. However, the script has trouble charting his character progression from hateful psychopath to kindhearted good guy. It feels like he’s suddenly given up a long-lasting, deep-rooted racism for no discernable reason aside from the fact that the story needs him to change at a certain moment.
Rosamund Pike is a real standout performer here. She has a lot to deal with as an actress. I mean, her entire family is gunned down in the very first scene. She plays these moments of shock and grief with a full throttle commitment, selling every single moment the script gives her, making a thinly written character really breathe. However, even her character has development issues. After really feeling the full force of trauma inflicted upon this woman, it is surprising to see her recover so quickly. She randomly decides to go along with Blocker even though his journey is clearly incredibly dangerous for no apparent reason other than the story needs to keep her along for the ride. There’s also a bizarre romance subplot between her and Blocker which doesn’t seem particularly realistic considering that her husband just died.
The Native American characters fare far worse. For a film that’s seemingly about the relationship between Blocker and Native Americans, every single one of the indigenous characters is given virtually no dialogue. Wes Studi fares the best: at least his character has some sort of history. Everyone else is basically reduced to a series of reaction shots. It’s writing like this that places “Hostiles” firmly in the category of films that mean well but lack perspective. It tries to convey a message of open-mindedness, but its story has a lot of tunnel vision. At least Scott Cooper seems like he has some idea of what to do with Blocker by the end of the script. In an effective final shot, he manages to paint a portrait of the difficult healing process of trauma more effectively than any of the portentous conversations in the movie. If only Cooper the writer could get out of Cooper the director’s way.