Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is near the end of a violent career in the US Army which has largely been spent abusing the Native American people. He and his men are tasked with escorting a sickly war chief (Wes Studi) back to his tribal lands to die, a goodwill gesture on the part of the gradually modernising American government. On the way he encounters Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) who has recently, and graphically, lost her entire family to Native American horse thieves. They all set out together to face the dangers of the road and their own inner demons.
Hostiles is a post-modern western and exemplifies the traditions of this genre. There’s a great deal of violence which purposely feels senseless and cruel. Karmic expectations are, for the most part, subverted to demonstrate the brutality of the west. The battle-weary heroes do not feel heroic as they contemplate the significance of their actions and grapple with their disillusionment. These elements feel very familiar after around sixty years of revisionist westerns, but the film has a uniquely optimistic regard for its central characters.
Bale’s Captain Blocker starts the movie as an extremely tough man who has a real hatred for the Native Americans. When tasked with guiding Yellow Hawk back to his homeland he reacts violently, nearly assaulting a superior officer and only agreeing to do it to procure his pension. However it takes very little time on the road before he has allied himself with the gentle chief against the more aggressive tribes that attack them. Similarly, Pike’s Quaid is a little too willing to see past her initial fear of the Chief’s family after the violent murder of her entire family. However, the much needed message of tolerance and understanding is a refreshing element in a western, even if it feels a little inexplicable in the violent times of the film’s setting.
These are, however, excellent performances. The warmth between Bale and Pike and the supporting characters is very believable, even if the script isn’t doing as much work as the actors. Pike plays traumatised in a genuinely affecting way whilst Bale offers a fragility that makes his fairly conventional western hero completely engrossing. There are some excellent turns from character actors, in particular Wes Studi and Peter Mullan who are both strong screen presences and neither have appeared in nearly enough films in the last few years. There are also some thrilling action sequences which are able to build real tension in their quick exchanges. The production design and particularly the costume design is excellent, bringing some very interesting elements to the traditional western aesthetics.
The film’s message might be optimistic, but it is arrived at just a little too easily to feel truly cathartic. Having said that Hostiles is still an excellent example of the genre, offering thrills and atmosphere.
3.5 / 5