Film Review: Christian Bale in Scott Cooper’s ‘Hostiles’

'Hostiles' Review: Christian Bale Reunites With
Lorey Sebastian, Le Grisbi Productions/Waypoint Entertainment

A ruthless killer of Native Americans learns that some 'savages' are worth saving in a Western that isn't nearly as progressive as it thinks.

It’s hardly “Heaven’s Gate,” but there’s a similar grandiosity of ambition — and a familiar sense of folly — to Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles,” a $40 million, independently produced, sure-to-be-R-rated Western in a marketplace where even a more broadly appealing oater, like Seth MacFarlane’s tongue-in-cheek “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” can barely earn that kind of money back. But “Hostiles” is no spoof; it’s a deadly serious examination of the strained relationship between white men and Native Americans in this country, one that acknowledges the racism and brutality the U.S. Army showed to frontier tribes, while giving a bigoted cavalry officer played by Christian Bale a chance to redeem himself.

Debuting at the Telluride film festival without a distributor in place, this impressively mounted, intellectually corrupt period piece isn’t your traditional Western, and clearly fancies itself a revisionist take on so many black-and-white us-vs.-them tales, in which unambiguously heroic white men protect their women and children from red-skinned enemies. But just how progressive is a movie that draws a false equivalency between individual Indian attacks and large-scale, government-sanctioned genocide?

So, while taking a much harder edge to the feel-good hug-an-Indian West of “Dances With Wolves,” “Hostiles” ultimately falls back on the same one-dimensional archetypes, depicting Native Americans either as ruthless savages or as stoic sages, with nothing in between. And though it basically argues that the surest way to overcome racism is to spend some time getting to know “the other,” Cooper’s film offers audiences no such opportunity, depriving its native characters of so much as a single scene in which they are treated as anything more than abstract plot devices in service of the white folks’ enlightenment.

By contrast, the film is exceptionally well-attuned to the complexity of its white characters — especially Bale, who’s tanned-leather tough as a character who doesn’t verbalize much, but given so much strong-silent screentime, viewers can read volumes into his performance — and their anti-Native-American hatred is nearly always “justified” by backstory. For example, after learning that Bale’s character was once left for dead with a Kiowa war spear in his gut, can anyone blame him for taking bloodthirsty delight in the extermination of his enemies? And after witnessing how Comanches use a pioneer family for target practice, who could fault Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) for being traumatized by the next group of natives to cross her path?

The premise here is that both characters, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) and Rosalee, have reason to hate Native Americans, but that such hostility is bad, and to facilitate their awakening, the movie invents a cross-country journey in which both are forced to travel with a group of Cheyenne prisoners (including native stars Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher, who barely register as characters). Though he’d actually prefer being court martialed to fulfilling the assignment, Blocker reluctantly agrees to escort chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to Montana, so the old warrior can die on his own land.

Back in his time, Yellow Hawk was a vicious killer of white men, and it offends Blocker’s principles to let someone like him go free (a mile or so from the fort, he pulls out a pair of very large knives and debates whether to serve his own brand of justice then and there). But, convenient to the story (yet never satisfactorily explained), the once-proud chief has been mellowed by cancer and seven years in an Army prison, and now, he’s fit to serve as the exception who challenges Blocker’s stereotypes — “the good Indian” whose company will bring Blocker and his band of racist cavalry officers around (as if there’s any sacrifice that can absolve them of the part they played in the battle of Wounded Knee).

“Those were the good old days,” says Blocker’s oldest friend, Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who made his first kill at age 14. Something happens to a man when he’s seen and caused that much death, and Cooper is clearly invested in trying to explore that aspect of the American character, whose soul “has never yet melted,” per the D.H. Lawrence quotation that introduces the film. (“Hostiles” has a curious provenance, “based upon the manuscript by Donald Stewart,” the screenwriter of “Missing” and “The Hunt for the Red October,” who died 18 years ago, and it’s hard to know just how much of the original material remains.)

At one point, Metz refers to the time “I was fightin’ for the Grays” — slang for his days as a Confederate soldier. But the fact that he and Blocker are friends implies that the captain has previously found it possible to forgive his rivals. Why should it be any different with Native Americans? What’s more, the movie goes out of its way to include a scene in which he tells a badly wounded, black-skinned Buffalo Soldier, Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), that he’s the best soldier he’s ever known — as if to illustrate the selectivity of his racial hatred.

Still, these were different times in America’s past, and peaceful coexistence didn’t seem plausible at the time — a point Cooper reminds by forcing Blocker to endure a liberal diatribe over dinner with Lt. Colonel Ross McCowan (Peter Mullan), as his wife (Robyn Malcolm) verbalizes a more progressive modern view. In 1892, however, white settlers found themselves under constant threat of being shot and scalped, playing a defensive game against the local “savages” — terrifyingly illustrated in “Hostiles’” opening scene, in which a group of Comanches ride up to a homestead and slaughter all but Rosalee, who barely escapes with her own life.

It’s not every director who can show three kids (including an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes) perforated by bullets without so much as flinching, but that’s Cooper’s M.O., refined over the three films since his relatively marshmallowy “Crazy Heart”: As in “Black Mass” before this, violence packs more punch if depicted matter-of-factly, which somehow registers as “realistic” these days (although one suspects that it would be far more horrifying if his victims suffered slow, agonizing deaths after being shot).

Cooper’s style is undeniably elegant, from its unhurried pace (in which heavily accented characters let long silences fill the space their lines) to the rich, widescreen imagery (positively stunning, its landscapes ranging far beyond the de-facto Monument Valley vistas so often seen in Westerns). Making the most of that scenery, DP Masanobu Takayanagi eschews closeups in favor of carefully blocked, painterly compositions. This was the effect “War for the Planet of the Apes” was going for, though Cooper isn’t asking audiences to acknowledge his good taste, but simply giving them room, both physical and emotional (and further encouraged by Max Richter’s restrained tonal score), to project themselves onto the scene.

That’s one of the reasons some viewers have found the film to be so profound: Because they themselves are profound, and the movie demands that its audiences flesh out what is left unspoken by its rugged characters (whose tough-to-understand lines ought to be subtitled in the same old-timey typeface used to translate the Cheyenne dialogue). Pike is especially terrific, delivering what could well be her best performance, as a woman who suffers a crippling loss and still manages to feel so much (though her character retreats into the background in the film’s final third). And Ben Foster, typecast as a demented Indian-killer, manages to complicate the question of what makes his character a psychopath and Bale’s a hero — to which Blocker’s answer, “I was just doing my job,” seems wholly inadequate. But why should Foster’s psychopath deserve such consideration, when the natives barely register as people? And why should audiences allow themselves to care for characters whom Cooper has no qualms about killing?

Be warned, the last paragraph of this review addresses the ending. Pretty much everybody dies in “Hostiles,” as if the alternative (survival) might be considered too sentimental for Cooper’s ruthless cred. Body count aside, “Hostiles” also features a happy ending, albeit one whose politics are the most problematic of any film this year. Though the last shot inspired applause at the Telluride film festival, think about what it is really saying. Bale’s character is a monster, as can be said of anyone who takes pleasure in killing, and though it’s satisfying to see him transformed, the movie isn’t at all clear about how or why — or even at what point — that happens. Cooper shows restraint at times (keeping the rape scene off screen, for example), but it’s empathy that’s called for.

Film Review: Christian Bale in Scott Cooper's 'Hostiles'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 3, 2017. (Also in Toronto film festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 133 MIN.

Production

Producers: Scott Cooper, John Lesher, Ken Kao. Executive producers: Will Weiske, Donald Stewart. Co-producers: Sean Murphy, Josh Rosenbaum, Jennifer Semler, Alex Walton.

Crew

Director: Scott Cooper. Screenplay: Cooper, based upon a manuscript by Donald Stewart. Camera (color, widescreen): Masanobu Takayanagi. Editor: Tom Cross. Music: Max Richter.

With

Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Peter Mullan, Scott Wilson, Paul Anderson, Timothée Chalamet, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, Bill Camp, Scott Shepherd, Ryan Bingham, Robyn Malcolm. (English, Cheyenne dialogue)

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  1. kate says:

    ” their anti-Native-American hatred is nearly always “justified” by backstory.”

    Bigotry on the frontier as *the* most complexly explored subject, worked for the Best Picture Nominee Brokeback Mountain.

  2. Brett says:

    1892? I think the setting is a bit late…by this time Native Americans, including the Apache, let alone the Comanche, had been confined to reservations. The days of the war path were really over not long after the Little Bighorn in 1876, and a few major battles with the Soiux in 1877 and the Apache wars (really more a small group still fighting, not the enitre tribe) in the1880s.

  3. John Th says:

    “But just how progressive is a movie that draws a false equivalency between individual Indian attacks and large-scale, government-sanctioned genocide?”

    You’re a complete fool. The Indians murdered many, many innocent white people often in brutal, sadistic fashion. It wasn’t a few individual attacks. It was widespread. Not to mention, Indian tribes had been slaughtering each other for over 1000 years before the white man showed up. The US government finally put a stop to the 1000 years of slaughter. It was the US Army that finally ended the savagery. And there certainly was no genocide. You’re reading all the wrong books.

    Left-wing historical revisionism is a mental disorder that should be treated as such.

    • Jim says:

      Right. The word “genocide” too much to describe the treatment of the Natives in America. There were atrocities, no doubt, but there never was a plan by the US government to annihilate all Natives. And it’s also true, that the Natives themselves were not always civilized and peace-loving tribes, far from it.

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  5. A movie that recounts the invasion and conquest of a people represent WAR and not restraint. War,by all accounts, is slaughter and rape of women and children, animals and the GENOCIDE of huma beings, great and small. An account of the pogram against indigenous natives is not to make white peo]le or Spanish people feel comfortable about their ancestors; nor is its entertainment value should be ahead of history.

    If a western choses to rewrite or truncate the truth (facts) that is entertainment and not in anyway what occurred.

  6. Kartikey says:

    This review doesn’t talk about the performance of the lead characters.
    Hostiles is supposed to be about the benevolence of the characters when they face their own dilemmas.
    I look forward to watching this

  7. Your reviews are fast becoming my favorites. I know Tapley and others have been pimping this film a bit, and it certainly seems like Bale and Pike are contenders for nominations (though probably not wins). But I always felt something seemed off with the story, having not even seen it yet. And your review is illuminating: it’s another white savior film. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the lead being a racist white captain confronting his own prejudice. But Cooper, a talented but somewhat one dimensional storyteller, seems to have missed an opportunity here. It does the story a great disservice by not delving more deeply into the Native Americans’ characters’ backstories and such.

    This is where I think Dee Rees’s Mudbound will succeed while Hostiles will ultimately fall short. In Mudbound, both the black family and white family members are fully realized characters, which enhances the story and film considerably. In this day and age, it’s not much to ask to have all characters in the story be more than plot devices.

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  9. Joan says:

    I’m confused of this review…What is wrong with the movie showing that the ‘white’ characters had reason to hate Native Americans? Would it be better for your taste to hate them without a reason? Or Native Americans hate White people without a reason? Your review is racistic and doesn’t touch the mere movie – you only address your opinions about the story.
    Ah! And no mention about Bale’s outstanding performance? I think you’re biased.

    • John Th says:

      “What is wrong with the movie showing that the ‘white’ characters had reason to hate Native Americans? ”

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it unless you are infected with left-wing political correctness and historical revisionism. According to leftists, whites are always the villains and non-whites are always the good guys.

    • Jon says:

      “What is wrong with the movie showing that the ‘white’ characters had reason to hate Native Americans? Would it be better for your taste to hate them without a reason?”

      Joan, Mr. Debruge’s point is, that the “savages” don’t get any scenes to ‘explain’ themselves, therefore it’s not a fair or balanced representation, but only a self-serving one for white audiences.
      This IS problematic, because by showing them this way, they remain ‘the other’ for the audience, just like for the characters in the movie.

      If you look at older movies like “The Last of The Mohicans” etc., even those had at least a few scenes where the Natives could articulate themselves.

      But I still need to see this myself.
      At least it sounds interesting.
      Like Cormac McCarthy’s version of “The Searchers”…

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