By Preston Wilder
The final shot of Hostiles is in slow motion, but the whole film might as well be in slow motion. This isn’t just a Western but a film about “the essential American soul” as an opening quote (by DH Lawrence, of all people) puts it, America being of course a nation founded on blood. I wouldn’t want you carrying that kind of burden, Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is told by a superior, and he grimly replies: “I’ve been carrying that kind of burden for some time”. The film too carries a burden, being heavy to the point of self-importance; it’s deadly serious, ‘serious as cancer’ as they say. Unsurprisingly, cancer also makes an appearance.
The old man dying of cancer is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), long since defeated by the white invaders and held at a remote Western fort – but it’s now 1892, the Indian Wars are almost over, and the President feels it’d be good publicity for Yellow Hawk to be allowed to die on his ancestral land in Montana. Joe speaks the language so he’s ordered to take the chief and his family on the hazardous journey, despite his own bloody past as an Indian fighter – and despite the fact, as he says with seething hatred, that the last thing he wants is to escort “that cutthroat and his troop of bastards and bitches”.
There’s hatred on both sides, the scars left by massacres and memories of friends brutally slaughtered. We open with a massacre, a white family murdered by ‘hostiles’; the only survivor, the mother Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), sinks into shock, sitting in the ashes of her home cradling her “sleeping” babies. Joe and his men come upon her, and try to help; Joe understands madness, it’s probably the only thing he does understand. Bale doesn’t get a lot to work with, but he gives the ideal performance for this character – a ticking bomb consciously restrained from exploding, a locked-off, desensitised man trapped in a world of blind loathing – and possesses the smouldering presence to bring it off.
The film thinks it’s making a grand statement on the dark heart of America, painting a picture of a land devoured by war; once you accept this – and the air of pomposity that comes with it – it’s actually very well-mounted, with a number of powerful scenes. The landscape is craggy and barren, the landscape of a nation not yet awakened to compassion. The rhythm is stately, director Scott Cooper going for long slow dissolves between often-spectacular shots. Above all, the vision is nuanced. The film, to its credit, doesn’t harp on white man’s guilt – which is not to say the two sides are as bad as each other, but they’ve both done despicable things. Neither side is monolithic. The Cheyenne hate the Comanche more than they do the white man. The whites, meanwhile, range from out-and-out racists to early moderns pushing for “humane” treatment of the Indians – “Need I mention they were here first?” says a military wife, which sounds a bit too modern for 1892 – with the soldiers in between, flawed but redeemable. Unsurprisingly, Joe belongs in this last category.
Hostiles is a mixed bag, the kind of film that makes you roll your eyes one minute then, in the next, grudgingly admit that it’s working for you. On the one hand, the script is predictable, building to inevitable rapprochement between Joe and Yellow Hawk; one could also mention some pretentious dialogue (“Sometimes I envy the finality of Death”) and the fact that the chief’s cancer is a plot device, barely there till it’s time for the final act and he’s suddenly on his deathbed. On the other hand, it’s touching when symbolic gifts are exchanged and tentative apologies offered. The landscape gets greener as the characters head north, reflecting their burgeoning empathy. The supporting cast teems with familiar faces, mostly behind bushy facial hair – not to mention Timothée Chalamet of Call Me By Your Name who, on the evidence of his small role, could wind up being one of those eccentric scene-stealing actors, like the young Benicio del Toro.
Cooper’s previous film, the gangster drama Black Mass, was unspeakably turgid; Hostiles isn’t exactly light on its feet – but the bombast seems to fit better here, just because everyone is so cartoonishly traumatised. One soldier claims to suffer from “melancholia”, saying he’s unfit to go on (shades of the mad Major in Dances With Wolves); another, a callow West Point lieutenant (shades of Ulzana’s Raid), sinks into moroseness after killing a man for the first time. Rosalie, too, is “broken”, though her madness is mostly forgotten in this battle of the machos. “We’re all guilty,” sighs a fellow Indian fighter, brought in to test Joe’s resolve – and collective guilt sits heavy on this downbeat Western, a film whose heaviness makes it almost ridiculous yet is also the only thing stopping it from being totally ridiculous. It’s the American soul, or something.
DIRECTED BY Scott Cooper
STARRING Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi
Includes some dialogue in Native American dialect
US 2017 134 mins