Scott Cooper has made an impressive body of work as a director over the last decade, starting with Crazy Heart. His heart is clearly in the downbeat auteur-led films of the ’70s, which can be a difficult direction for a director in today’s climate of studio tentpole films. As a result, Hostiles was financed by independent investors, without any kind of studio backing. It’s also Cooper’s first full-blown western, although all of his films have echoes and motifs of the western throughout.
It’s a story about Indian War veteran Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who is on the verge of retirement but must perform one last mission before he can kick back and live off his government pension. He must bring an old foe, the sickly Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family back to the chief’s homeland of rural Montana, so he can die there in peace—it’s presidential orders. Blocker initially refuses, but when faced with the threat of his pension being withdrawn, he relents and agrees to the journey. On the way they find Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who is suffering from a serious case of PTSD after her entire family were brutally massacred by a Comanche war party in the opening sequence.
The film is very much about how people’s prejudices can fade away by being exposed to what they feel threatened by. Blocker starts off as a bonafide racist who feels nothing but utter disgust when it comes to Native Americans, but by the end of the film his view of them has changed drastically. It’s a message that we could certainly use in the era of Trump, where people often think anybody who voted for the arancione il duce is a bonafide fascist and there is no point in talking to them (and vice versa.) It’s also pretty obvious that Cooper is seeing the very clear parallel between how we treat the Native Americans then and various types of oppression in the US today.
Christian Bale is at the point of his career where he can play this world-weary, bitter, ageing vet, and it’s most likely his best performance since his previous collaboration with Cooper, Out of the Furnace. The real surprise is Rosamund Pike, who many completely wrote off for years after her debut in as a Bond Girl/villain—but obviously that completely changed with Gone Girl. She has been extremely careful with what she has done since, and it’s a meaty role for her to sink her teeth.
The real standout is Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk. He is one of the most recognisable Native American actors after coming to fame with Dances with Wolves. He doesn’t have to do a lot of physical action in this film, but he is one of those actors who has a face that does half the work for him. His presence is felt from the first moment that you see him to the very last. He is also a rarity amongst actors due to the fact that he didn’t start acting till he was well into his 40s.
The rest of the cast, who for the most part comprise Blocker’s detail, are actors that most people would recognise, such as Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane. The two most interesting casting choices are Ben Foster and Timothée Chalamet. The casting of Chalamet is especially interesting: it’s it’s really a tiny role, but by the time the film came out he was one of the biggest young actors in the world after starring in Call By Me Your Name and Lady Bird. He plays a young, French-speaking private who is only in the film for a short period. Foster, on the other hand, plays a prisoner they had to take be hanged. He has done similar roles before and is always good, and this no exception. British audiences will recognise Peter Mullen, who plays a commander.
Hostiles is a remarkable and, eventually, moving western that says as much about the new west as it does about the old west, which is what all good westerns should do. It’s an intelligent left-wing western that is deeply sympathetic to its Native characters, which even today can be rare. It’s a film which is willing to look at the various contradictions of the west, but even with that very clear intent, Hostiles had many naysayers saying that it uses the “white saviour” narrative, but the only thing Blocker attempts to save in the film is his soul.
The disc’s sole feature is a solid, hour-long making-of documentary cut up into three segments.