Scott Cooper (Black Mass) is a writer/director who always delves into the gritty underbelly of the US, casting an unflinching eye over its history and social traits. With Hostiles, he moves into the Western genre, and right from the shocking opening sequence, you know you are not in for a good ole boy, John Waynesque movie. And while he does occasionally move into the realm of cliche and generic storytelling that lurks in all his movies, I can’t help but admire his take on Donald E. Stewart’s (Patriot Games) manuscript and this much-flaunted genre, as he’s taken great pains to express the complexity of the Native tribes and how the West was brutally ‘won’ by white Europeans.
What makes Hostiles work, above all else, is the fantastic cast and acting, led by Christian Bale on fine form as a long-serving and war-weary Captain in the Union army, who begrudgingly takes on a mission, transporting an imprisoned, terminally ill Cheyenne chief, played with great authenticity by Wes Studi (Last Of The Mohicans), and his family to neutral territory. With his notorious reputation for brutality towards the natives in wartime, the journey makes for a tense and dangerous affair, especially when Commanche warriors are prowling the route.
The impressive Pike is the focus of the secondary plot, as a traumatised but hardy mother whose family is attacked in the opening scene, eventually leading her into the path of Bale and his party. The rest of the fantastic cast includes rising star Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad), Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe), Ben Foster (Hell Or High Water), Peter Mullan (I Am Joe) and Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name), who all compliment Cooper’s ambition for realism and plausibility.
Hostiles is fairly slow moving, but when it does kick off, the detail and choreography in the action is impressive but not for the squeamish or faint of heart, as no one is safe in this film. Not innocent women, nor kids, and for me, that is how it should be when depicting this turbulent and merciless time period in US history. The point of this story is to show how everyone’s hands got dirty.
The depiction of the various tribes and how they themselves — for example, the Cheyenne and Commanche tribes — were rivals and had varying degrees of warlike attitudes towards the invaders is represented exceptionally. But overall, Cooper makes no bones about the wrongs bestowed upon the Native tribes by the white settlers. He’s sometimes a little heavy-handed, but it is a vital point to make, and PTSD and its symptoms are included as a big factor.
Where Hostiles gets frustrating is in the later stages where it feels as if Cooper is balancing out everything with respect to who was killing who. It was as if he had a kill ratio to meet, between the different sides and it started to feel contrived. A kidnap scene that occurs seemed completely unnecessary and unrealistic, as if he was trying to accommodate different audiences. The final showdown wasn’t as tight, action wise, as previous scenes, and was rather generic and predictable, which is a shame.
Aside from these discrepancies, Hostiles is a film that I rate, as its premise hits home hard but isn’t completely bleak in its outcome. Cooper tries to give an insight into the bloody history of the US and creates admirable parallels as to why the country is in so much turmoil, now, concerning violence and discrimination against minorities. But the outstanding acting alone from Bale and Pike make this a worthy watch. Hostiles may not be up there with the classics, but it is still a worthy addition to the Western genre. Kev Lovski
Hostiles is showing at Odyssey Cinemas, Belfast and IMC, Ballymena.