American cinema has always been about modern mythmaking. No genre of film encapsulates this more than the Western, as there is nothing that symbolises American heroism more than the Cowboy. At least that’s how it used to be when cinema enjoyed the black hat and white hat morality that even Star Wars is now leaving behind. Since the Western went the way of the musical, and because America has moved on from that legend with superheroes filling the void, its up to smaller films like Hostiles to deconstruct the genre and examine what makes it tick.
Hostiles director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) does this by showing the brutality and degradation inherent to the Old West and the trauma, both physical and emotional, that the men and women of this time went through. Hostiles is the story of Army Captain Joe Blocker, played by Christian Bale, who is charged with taking a dying Cheyenne war chief named Yellow Hawk, played by Wes Studi, and his family back to his tribal lands in 1892. During this trip Blocker and his men come across Rosalie Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, whose husband and three children were brutally murdered by Comanche Indians. Suicidal, Rosalie joins the party because she has nothing left.
At nearly 2 and a half hours long, Hostiles is not for the faint of heart. It’s a relentless, emotionally punishing film that challenges the conventions of the Western like no film has achieved since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. With so much talk about what constitutes as toxic masculinity you need look no further than the Wild West. This is a place where a man can be murdered for saying the wrong thing, and the man who murdered him is dead inside from all of the bloodshed he’s been responsible for.
Still, this exploration would be pointless if there weren’t layered characters to carry the weight. This is Hostiles greatest strength, with Christian Bale’s simmering performance the heart of the film. His Joe Blocker is a blunt instrument for his country, a man who has been killing so long that he has lost track of the years he’s served. If there is one scene in which Bale captures Blocker perfectly, it’s the conversation with his right-hand man Master Sergeant Thomas Metz, played by Rory Cochrane. They discuss their glory years in the army, the happiest either of them are in the entire film, but what they are talking about is the horrible violence they inflicted on the Native Americans. To undercut their point, Metz tells Blocker that the army has taken his guns away because he’s depressed. Blocker says there’s no such thing and gives him his guns back.
Depression, grief, and trauma are the building blocks of Hostiles. The film explores what happens to a person who has committed these awful things, like Blocker, and who’s been a victim of them, like Rosalie. It’s the contrast of Bale and Pike’s performances that spark these questions. Pike brilliantly brings Rosalie’s grief to howling life, where as Blocker must hold everything in. It’s a tour-de-force from both actors, whose subtle connection feels more real than any conventional romance ever could.
Hostiles is an emotionally intricate film. It doesn’t spoon-feed or pander to its audience, and it’s use of violence has a visceral shock that refuses to be taken lightly. Thanks to the balance between the acts and consequences of such violence, Hostiles is a hard-nosed look at what happens when a ruthless killer, which is what both Blocker and Yellow Hawk were, finds their humanity again. In a genre known for its heroes and villains Hostiles refuses to make such easy distinctions.