The opening scene of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is so unflinchingly harsh and violent, it may cause some audience members to check out early. In the establishing moments, we meet Rosalie Quaid (played by Rosamund Pike), as she’s homeschooling her children while her husband sits close by. Since the setting is 1892 and their home is located in the midst of an open prairie, they’re in plain view of any threat turning up on horseback, which is exactly what they encounter. As a quiet session of schooling becomes an outburst of savagery, Cooper quickly thrusts his viewers into the western genre at its most authentically gritty, male dominated and cruel.
This is the kind of landscape where bloodshed can occur for any reason. Cooper’s 2013 drama, Out of the Furnace, similarly began with a jarring scene of brutality to establish the tarnished masculinity and sadism of the characters. However, whereas that film unraveled an overly familiar narrative (that even superb work by Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson couldn’t overcome), Hostiles succeeds in its examination of how a violent mindset can be created but also overcome.
Bale once again is Cooper’s star, playing Captain Joseph Blocker, a celebrated soldier most famous for slaughtering Native Americans and capturing the notorious Chief Yellow Hawk (played by Wes Studi). Blocker is assigned with leading a group across country, in order to transport the shackled Chief Yellow Hawk and his imprisoned family members (played by Adam Beach and Princess Kaiulani star Q’orianka Kilcher).
The set-up seems to indicate a change-of-heart story for the tortured Blocker and Cooper certainly puts Blocker (and Bale) through a psychological cleansing of sorts but nothing here is ever predictable. The grit of the establishing scenes suggest a straight-forward revenge tale (which was the case with Out of the Furnace) but Cooper’s film is richer than that.
Tougher than razor wire and full of unexpected story turns, Hostiles is an examination of characters facing their well-established identities and finding a startling rebirth. Like the best horse operas, this conveys what the hardship of living off an unforgiving land, defending what’s yours, being at the mercy of open spaces and conscience-free criminals will do to a person.
While Cooper’s film is rough going at times and has an exciting shootouts, I was especially taken by how moving and expectations-defying it is. There have been great Westerns made during this century but this is one of the best, worthy of comparison to the work of John Ford and Clint Eastwood.
Cooper’s film is a little too in love with its dialogue, as it digs its spurs in the ground too often for lengthy pauses. Yet, Hostiles is aided by a cast with a great legacy in the genre (Bale in 3:10 To Yuma and Studi in The Last of the Mohicans and Geronimo: A Warrior’s Tale) and one another (Kilcher played Pocahontas opposite Bale in The New World, while co-star Ben Foster was pitted against Bale in 3:10 To Yuma). Bale’s dialed-back, inward turn as a haunted warrior is simply wonderful. Studhi’s powerful presence adds so much to his portrayal and there are great turns by Foster, Stephen Lang, Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons.
I won’t give away the final scene but will say that Cooper’s film ranks among the few westerns I’d describe as soulful.
Three and a Half Stars