“You have no idea what it does to a man.”
More serious than an old spaghetti Western and more grounded than one of the many revisionist takes on this al dente rooted genre, Hostiles tells its chewy and toothsome tale will force and loosely calculated measure. It’s acerbic, cold, brimming with hope tattooed by the marks of pain. And yet the film allows its initially narrow-minded characters to change and adapt to the often sprawling, infinite horizons of integrity tucked away in the long-forgotten landscapes of this nation’s once great frontier. Hostiles hurts, and it packs salt onto the wounds it inflicts with such a dilligent hand and an empathetic eye that we know we’re being taken care of, no matter how harsh the experience may seem.
Hostiles opens with a thinkpiece – or perhaps a striking contemplation – from D.H. Lawrence, a 20th century writer who often focused on modernity’s effect on the heart of a people. “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” This is a description written in blotted, brooding ink. What comes next is no dissimilar. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) escapes a Comanche war party, watches her husband as he’s scalped, loses each of their three young children in a desperate getaway. Soon there after, Colonel Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) chomps an apple while his good ol’ boys round up a family of Apaches, bringing them back to base. Much is made of the word savage in Hostiles, and the script challenges what the definition really means. The Native Indians are barbaric but never tortuous, and the white men tend to be tortuous without always submitting to their barbarity. What’s more savage? Delivering a swift kill or a skillful slice so as to watch one bleed out? Or are they equals?
These hard questions are never outright answered in Hostiles; the film dwells more on its differently shared experiences than it does the personal definitions or identifications of the pitiful plight at its duressed and two-chambered heart. And like any worthwhile or substantive Western, the picture is told through the chilling voice of a fireside chat heavy on fatalism and drenched in mood. In this wrought-iron piece of movie-making, enemies become friends through shared hardship, through the pains of their past, and through their selfishly color-blind desire to live a long, prosperous life. Hostiles could’ve had a trimmer waistline, but for once the glut and the heavy gut doesn’t reflect a bloated runtime; movies of this breed require extended time to chew on, to think about, and to appropriately swallow up its grizzled beauty.
Relatively light on actual plot and heavy on self-manifested atmosphere, Hostiles is an ichorous depiction of love, loss, and Mother Nature’s upper-hand in all things organic. Colonel Joe Blocker, like any good character worth admiring and cautiously absolving, is a man who’s consumed and served so much hate that we rarely see him eat, as if tasting goodness would purge his loins. His adversary, Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), equally deprave and dying from cancer, becomes his companion on this road trip to Montana as Blocker is ordered to return Yellow Hawk to his proper burial ground. Contrary to the overwhelming blanket of standard Westerns and the utter comedy of tried-and-true “Oaters,” Hostiles takes on the wildly popular neo-western mold with a glaring, admirably moral ambiguity. Best of all though, the film challenges us by emphasizing on-screen the kinds of trauma that most would lazily relegate to off-screen sound editing. Hostiles is long, laborous, and inwardly contemplative, so much so that it begins to tell us a simple truth: we’re all a whole lot more similar than we believe.
Scott Cooper directs and operates with a tone that’s both a pure companion piece to 2014’s The Homesman, and the script sprinkled with bits and pieces of 2015’s entirely unique Slow West. Hostiles is a film with purpose, foggy clarity, and handfuls of intagible vexation. Every performance is astounding. Masanobu Takayanagi’s brilliant cinematography echoes the genre’s most influential filmmakers (most notably a certain Mr. John Ford). Max Richter’s sorely underrated score pulses with the bravado of an echoing organ and the plucky strings of a campfire tune drunk on rye whiskey and smoke-filled lungs (Ryan Bingham’s original song “How Shall a Sparrow Fly” turns the lights down low and cuts to the core of this movie’s rigid fragility). As the film ends and we see the survivors embarking on a journey into the busybody existence of city-living, it almost feels too easy and predictable, too comforting for a picture that starts with such a quote. But when you think about it, and when you compare the instictual habits of frontier life versus those of commoners, the film regains its incredibly daunting footing. We can’t imagine these people making it out in the real world. Then again, if they can survive the frontier, what can’t they handle?
“Sometimes I envy the finality of death.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5