It’s 1892, two years after Wounded Knee. In Colorado, Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is dying in captivity. For propaganda purposes, he will be escorted back to Montana so he can die at home. Yellow Hawk was a fierce and brutal warrior in his prime, so the mission is given to Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), another old soldier who is feared and respected for his cruelty. And off they go, with Blocker’s old comrade Metz (Rory Cochrane) and three other soldiers, through dangerous Comanche territory. They find a woman who has lost her family to Comanches (Rosamund Pike) and a few more troops on their journey, and then talk mournfully about the cruelty of the West.
“Hostiles,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, is admirable for its brutality. There is no sanitized violence here — the first scene ends with two children being shot. This inciting violence, necessary in a western but often skirted around delicately, is treated as bluntly as the violence that follows the convoy as it travels through the beautiful open skies of Wyoming. The sound design in particular is impressive, as the gunshots crack with an unusual sharpness and echo in our ears for much longer than most films would allow. There is a great feeling of confusion in these shootouts as well, not beautiful clarity that comes with most action films. These fights are desperate fights for life.
The performances are desperate as well. Bale is at his most intense and brooding here, and it suits him very well. It’s always sad to me when he drops or throws on weight for a role, as he has recently for a Dick Cheney biopic. He’s a strong enough actor that he doesn’t need to resort to Oscar bait tricks, and this film is a great example. He is severe but can show a great softness just by using his eyes. Pike spends her first 20 or so minutes in the silent throaty, screaming of a grieving mother. There is a scene where, clutching a dead baby in her arms, she tells Blocker to be quiet, her children are sleeping. Pike sells this brilliantly, and it is harrowing to watch.
Reading this review over, I can’t see why I didn’t love this movie. Emotionally brutal, gritty, violent westerns are my bread and butter. The film suffers in the quiet scenes. Most of the movie is Blocker and the whole party talking about the terrible things that they have done and questioning what that means for them. Again, something that I usually love. This kind of dialogue is the foundation of many a great movie, especially westerns (“Unforgiven”). But “Hostiles” falls into the classic screenwriting trap of telling, not showing. We hear the stories but we don’t see the proof. The cruelest thing Blocker does to his sworn enemy, Yellow Hawk, is put him in chains, which are gone by what feels like the half-hour mark. Blocker and Yellow Hawk are both myths and the film would be more compelling if the myths had some reality.
Characters are also created and discarded with little regard for our feelings about them. Metz is introduced to us like he will be a major character. He talks to Blocker about his “melancholia” and we get the feeling that he will serve as some kind of moral center. He appears only a few more times, and when he leaves the film dramatically it leaves a minimal emotional impact. The morality of western expansion is also treated relatively lightly. Violence committed by Native Americans is what we see more of fitting a pre-postmodern western, but there is also a strong element of guilt, fitting a more contemporary one. Maybe this ambiguity is intentional, but it still makes for a less memorable film.