The Rise of the Revisionist Western
When most viewers think of their stereotypical Western, the image of John Wayne’s righteous hero bravely saving the day from a group of savage Indians surely comes to mind. The morality of these films was clear-cut, the brave frontiersmen heroically taming an uncivilized land.
However, with time and a greater understanding of history, this “idyllic” view of the Old West is now seen as far from true. In recent times there have been more revisionist depictions of the era, with films like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition or the Coen Brothers 2010 remake of True Grit. These movies gave us where anti-heroes with questionable motives and morals that could almost be mistaken for villains.
With Hostiles director, Scott Cooper tries to look at the complex relationship between Native Americans and American Settlers in the dying days of the Old West. Set in 1892, it tells the story of a well revered US Army Captain who reluctantly accepts a mission to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family to their tribal land.
However, their journey is no easy task as the savage lands that await them are fraught with dangerous Comanches and other intimidating individuals. This forces the two groups of sworn enemies to work together if they are to survive.
A Violent Slow-Burner
Right from the opening sequence, Cooper makes it distinctly clear that Hostiles is not like the Westerns of old with an extremely violent scene involving the murder of almost an entire family. From here Cooper’s Western lets the audience know exactly what they are in for with moments like these dispersed throughout the entire film. Using these acts of violence throughout the film, Cooper allows the audience to dwell on the film’s moral compass as atrocities are committed on all sides.
In terms of the pacing, the film feels long and drawn out, but in the best way possible as it means these moments of visceral onscreen brutality have much more impact. While this might prove testing for some it works at allowing the audience time to reflect on the themes and relationships that develop between characters.
Cooper has adapted the film’s screenplay from a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, but in doing so he’s added his own personal touches into the screenplay. This almost works against the film’s favor as he throws too many ideas such as PTSD into the narrative and they’re never really developed satisfactorily.
These plot elements detract from the film’s main focus, which is the relationship between the diametrically opposed Captain Joseph Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk and how that relationship changes over the course of the film.
Intense Bale at his Finest
In the role of Captain Joseph Blocker Christian Bale delivers one of his best performances to date as a man with a deep seeded hatred for Native Americans which he keeps at bay with a stoic intensity. It is this trademark intensity that makes it easy to see why Cooper wrote the role for Bale as his character’s complex personal journey is as enthralling as the mission.
Opposite him, Wes Studi more than holds his own as the dying War chief Yellow Hawk. With a stony expression throughout Studi still manages to convey his character’s inner turmoil perfectly. It is this internal balancing act which looks at his hatred and barbaric past alongside the sorrow that it has caused that makes Studi’s performance one of the highlights of the film.
In the role of Rosalie Quaid, a woman who loses everything in the blink of an eye is Rosamund Pike and the actress does a great job at portraying a broken woman who becomes stronger as the journey progresses. The rest of the cast feature well-known character actors such as Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons and Ben Foster and they all do well with their minor roles.
No Such Thing as a Bad Looking Western
It can be argued that there is no such thing as a bad looking Western and Hostiles is no exception as Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is stunning. He manages to capture both the beauty and harshness of the landscape with a gritty eye.
In one such scene, Takayanagi captures a stunning image of the party making their way through a forest the morning after a wicked storm. The way in which he captures the sunlight splitting the trees and the aura this creates is nothing short of breathtaking.
Those stunning visuals are beautifully accompanied by Max Richter’s haunting score, which combines soundscapes with traditional instruments to expertly convey the psyche of each of the characters and how they cope with their harrowing mission.
With Hostiles, Cooper crafts a harrowing odyssey from the dying days of one the most violent eras in American history that focuses on redemption and reconciliation through both an inward and outward perspective. With outstanding performances from the two leads coupled with a tremendous score from Max Richter, Hostiles is a terrific Western that instills a brutal honesty to the genre.