By Charles Kirkland Jr.
Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has spent a life in dedication to the military of the early United States. In service to his country, he has seen many atrocities committed by Native Americans and perpetrated many more. His reputation proceeds him in his strength and his brutality. As his commission comes to an end, he is given one last mission: transport a dying Cheyenne chief and his family to their tribal land where he can be laid to rest. Chief Yellow Hawk and his family were interred in a camp but now the politics are changing and “Natives” are being returned to their lands. The route of the journey goes through perilous terrain and even more dangerous Comanche land that is familiar to Capt. Blocker through his service of rounding up and detaining these natives. While the reputation of Chief Yellow Hawk rivals Blocker’s own in brutality, Blocker is forced to reconcile his own misgivings, misconceptions, and prejudices as he attempts to fulfill his mission.
Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass), Hostiles is a sweeping epic movie in its scope. Cooper does a great job of juxtaposing rich beautiful landscapes with gritty action and even grittier characters. It is this juxtaposition that is the center of the movie. While Yellow Hawk and Blocker have both committed sincerely atrocious and possibly evil acts, they have the capability for tenderness and love. This dichotomy has become a trademark of Cooper with similar themes being present in his best previous movie, Crazy Heart and to a lesser extent in the recent, Black Mass.
The cinematography of Hostiles is a character all of its own. Shot on 35mm film, Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Out of the Grey, Silver Linings Playbook) returns to working with Cooper after having worked with him on Out of the Furnace and Black Mass and ups his game considerably. Pastoral landscapes and brutal action scenes are all captured in depth and detail that accent the story on the screen and the roles played by the actors. Takayanagi creates frontier landscapes that rival Frederic Remington in its ability to capture the majesty and splendor of the unspoiled land of the old American West.
There are weaknesses in the movie though. The movie is about twenty minutes too long. Yet even in its length, the story fails to properly illustrate the evolution of the Capt. Blocker character. It seems as though Blocker is too accepting of his charges too quickly into the movie. While it is understood that a transformation occurred, it is never clear where or why Capt. Blocker, who at the start of the movie, is ready to resign his commission over this mission given to him, suddenly develops such a respect for Chief Yellow Hawk and his group.
Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) may serve as that linchpin for the movie. Quaid’s husband and children are murdered before her eyes by Comanche. While Rosalie struggles to reclaim her sanity, it is her quest for peace, forgiveness, and understanding that allows Blocker and his company to embark on their own journey for peace and resolution. While Blocker develops an affinity for Quaid and her journey, unfortunately, the correlation between Quaid’s enlightenment and Blocker’s is never truly established.
There are some outstanding performances in the movie. Rosamund Pike’s performance as Rosalie Quaid rivals her work in Gone Girl for the levels of depth and complexity. Wes Studi is intense as the dying Chief Yellow Hawk who struggles to reconcile the actions of his past while coming to grips with the loss of the strength through his impending death. Ben Foster’s portrayal of Sgt. Charles Willis draws our ire and at the same time sympathy for his ill-begotten racist ideology.
Hostiles rated R for strong violence and language, is a gloriously beautiful pastiche that does not shy away from the ugly prejudices and gritty reality that is absent from the typical cowboys vs Indians fare that preceded it. The “good guys” aren’t all that good and the “bad guys” are not as bad. For Cooper that must ultimately be the point.