Scott Cooper’s nihilistic acid Western is as self-serious as it is unrelentingly brutal, for both good and ill.
The Western is a genre rife for deconstruction, particularly as the real-life horrors of its era become more of a universally accepted truth. The Golden Age gave us heroic white gunslingers bravely fighting off hordes of whooping Indian savages, with nary a thought to the circumstances that put them there – this kind of approach would never fly today, leaving its legacy open to interrogation by modern filmmakers. Consequently, when directors like James Mangold and Scott Cooper dip their toes back into the genre in the 21st century, it’s to subvert and critique that white-hat, black-hat ethos. Cooper’s Hostiles is one such film, an unrelentingly brutal Western that offers some accountability for the white settlers’ demonization and subjugation of Native American peoples, but can’t quite climb out of that navel-gazing apology to provide much else of substance.
Set in the waning years of the Old West, Hostiles follows a mission led by Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale, all smolder and a saloon-worthy crumbcatcher) to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne war chief dying of cancer, back to the sacred lands of his people in Montana. Despite Blocker’s protests – his time in the West has left him violently prejudiced against Indians – he is forced by his superiors, and before long he sets out with a group of volunteers to bring him back home.
Hostiles, if nothing else, is a dynamic showcase for its incredible ensemble cast, with meaty scenes even for bit players like Timothée Chalamet (who’s having a hell of a year), Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster and others. As the leads, Bale and Studi are wonderful together, and it’s always fantastic to see a veteran character actor like Studi get some introspective, substantial work to do. The third lead is Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie, a woman they meet along their travels, who loses everything (including her family) to a brutal Comanche attack in the film’s opening minutes. Pike acquits herself well with the material, but Cooper’s script doesn’t give her much more to do besides melodramatically wail and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
From a formal sense, Hostiles looks and sound stunning: cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi infuses each textured frame with desolate detail, the dirt and fire of the Old West marring the shiny slickness of traditional Western narratives. Max Richter’s minimalist score befits the film’s bleakness nicely, finding small moments of beauty in the fog of war.
The bleakness of Hostiles is obviously its selling point, eschewing Old West romance for a Coenesque treatment of violence that is almost too matter-of-fact. While that period’s atrocities probably looked very much like the scalping and shooting we see in Hostiles, Cooper’s dedication to deadening the violence actually goes a bit too far. Hostiles revels in every muted gunshot and point-blank beating, lingering on the dead bodies of friend and foe alike as if Cooper is unsure whether or not you get it. Other recent Western directors have effectively sold the isolation and chaos of the West without basking in its own nihilism the way Hostiles does.
For all its attempts to deconstruct and challenge white-centric narratives, and show white folks coming to repentance for their role in marginalizing and wiping out Native Americans in the old West, Hostiles suffers from a lack of equal time. Ostensibly, the road-trip dynamic should lead to some meaningful moments of cultural exchange. But the film is far too focused on Bale’s apologia to give Studi and the other talented members of the Cheyenne coterie (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher) much to do besides act as two-dimensional symbols of white guilt. This ties in neatly to my criticisms of the film’s overt violence: quite a lot of bad things happen to native bodies in this film, and Cooper’s work veers too far into turning them into props whenever one of them is killed off in the film’s unceremonious treatment of violence.
As an investigation into the deep-seated tensions between whites and Natives during the Old West, Hostiles doesn’t quite succeed, preferring to dip too far into self-serious grindhouse territory to keep its audience excited (and horrified). That being said, there’s a lot to admire about its willingness to interrogate a genre many people take for granted, and to do so with such a talented cast and crew. With a few tweaks to tone and character balance, Hostiles could have been a really great investigation of the Western; as is, it feels like an overextended, inwardly focused self-flagellation that doesn’t take Native perspectives into true consideration.
Hostiles premieres Friday, January 5 in Chicago at the AMC River East and Century 12 Evanston.