In the post civil war 19th century American frontier, a respected and bigoted army captain and his unit reluctantly escort a tribal chief and his family home to Montana, a dangerous journey which will force them to confront the past and question their place in this burgeoning new country—in this gritty anti-war western from the director of ‘Black Mass’.
After impressing discerning audiences over the last eight years with gritty and honest dramas like the Oscar-winning ‘Crazy Heart’ and Boston mob biopic ‘Black Mass’, actor-turned-director Scott Cooper reunites with his ‘Out of the Furnace’ star Christian Bale to tackle one of the more difficult and painful periods in American history—the treatment of the indigenous peoples (or native Americans) by European settlers. Using the backdrop of the American frontier and the structure of classic a Western to tell a story deliberately burdened by guilt but motivated by reconciliation, confronting the truth of recent history by bridging the gap between peoples through shared ideals, motivation and pain . . . and the dark part of the soul which often drives the hearts of men.
Bale stars as U.S. army captain ‘Joseph Blocker’, a stoic and respected soldier with a notorious reputation for dealing with ‘Indians’ in the American frontier, forced by the military brass with a government PR agenda to escort former enemy and ailing Cheyenne chief ‘Yellow Hawk’ (Wes Studi) and his family home to Montana. After they encounter grieving widow ‘Rosalie Quaid’ (Rosamund Pike), the journey becomes more perilous for trusty but conflicted sergeant ‘Metz’ (Rory Cochrane), dependable corporal ‘Woodsen’ (Jonathan Majors) and the rest of the company, as the hardship and bitterness of life in the old west breeds eye-opening self-reflection for Blocker and Yellow Hawk—brought together by opposing grievances but shared pain.
Art and pop-culture almost inevitably reflects the socio-political climate of the time in which its made and ‘liberal’ Hollywood has often lead the way in this regard, with genre and even period cinema being no exception, and ‘Hostiles’ is a clear example of this—trading on collective American guilt over the sins of the past, yet providing some subtlety and context rather than just black and white recrimination and finger-pointing. This is very much a human drama western built on the precarious bones of historical revisionism, yet not the lamentable type which foolishly crowbars history into a 21st century context, but rather a more measured one which tries to paint a more accurate picture of the past, from a broader point of view and not just the perspective of the ‘winners’.
At first glance ‘Hostiles’ may seem like somewhat of a traditional western, albeit from the more recent school of reflective frontier fare than the genre’s classic or spaghetti era, and one with clear echoes of Kevin Costner’s 1990 Oscar-winning epic ‘Dances with Wolves’. When you look under the surface though, this is much more of a gritty slow-burn character drama which just happens to be set in the 19th century American frontier, and shares several classic western tropes.
Cooper isn’t just interested in correcting the old ‘cowboys vs. indians’ and ‘civilised vs. savage’ paradigm, or turning it on its head, but also painting a picture of the old west that goes beyond thematic monochrome and depicts characters and cultures which sit in the grey spectrum, brought together by the fragile spectre of understanding and reconciliation—after being long caught in a callous and brutal cycle of recrimination and retribution.
Ultimately ‘Hostiles’ proves to be quite the compelling view, but Cooper’s story is more of an internal emotional journey than a hugely captivating or epic physical one, and the story isn’t imaginative or gruelling enough to make for a classic modern western, of which there are so few. The characters themselves, intriguing as they are in the first act, run the risk of becoming overly familiar and even predictable as the film slightly drags in the third act, towards a conclusion you can see coming but still manages to be poignant and in tune with the tone of the film.
Ultimately what really makes this ensemble character piece are the performances involved, with a strong supporting cast led by the always excellent Rosamund Pike and the impassive Wes Studi, who serves as a confronting mirror for the characters and the audience, plus solid performances from the likes of Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons. But they’re all there in support of the great Christian Bale in yet another performance which confirms his position as one of the finest actors of his generation—as a stoic figure with deep emotional wounds and a highly questionable past but a moral core of his own, who could have been an unsympathetic character if it weren’t for the considerable quiet charisma and intensity of the actor playing him.
The Bottom Line…
Despite a slightly underwhelming story and familiar character arcs, Scott Cooper’s latest gritty human drama scours the sins of the old west and the dark legacy of the European settling of the American frontier to give us a reflective and mournful yet hopeful western. Uniting former foes and humanity as a whole through shared values but also pain and the dark side of our nature—brought to life by accomplished supporting performances and yet another intense and layered leading turn from one of the finest actors working today.
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Dances with Wolves (1990)
Stuck in an isolated civil war outpost in the American frontier, a US Army lieutenant forms an unlikely bond with the wolves of the plains and begins to forge a rare connection with the local native Americans, putting him on a collision course with his own people in this Oscar-winning modern western classic from Kevin Costner.
Directed by Kevin Costner and starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene among others.