Hostiles Review: A future classic
A Western of deep complexity that is sure to become a classic in the years to follow
A film that possesses little to no flaws is, more often than not, a fallacy. It is only those rare works of art that make you confront perfection, and question whether that notion does in fact exist. As I immersed myself in Scott Cooper’s sweeping historical saga of violence, injustice, loss, and conscience, it was that question I kept going back to.
Cooper brings to life a decades-old story by noted screenwriter, Donald E Stewart. A story so powerfully told that it falls into the Russian tradition of epics, so to speak. It made me wonder if the original story was perhaps envisioned as a novel first, before it was conceived as anything else. If so, it would have surely been the late man’s magnum opus. Scott Cooper brings to the fore a Terence Malick-like brilliance to just about every frame that makes it to the final cut of Hostiles. As seen in the long, panoramic visuals of the fields and valleys, and in the incandescent sunsets, there is a clear nod to Malick’s Days of Heaven. I have this feeling that the film will become a worthy classic in the years to come. Not just will it be spoken about for the superlative performances of Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, and the remaining players, it will also be remembered for its dialogue, its technical splendour, its music, and its direction. Hostiles presents a kind of cinema that lingers in one’s mind long after the credits have rolled. Scenes of heavy, brooding intensity, fill almost all of the 133 minutes of screen time. It is only that time frame that allows for the kind of character development realised in the story.
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach
Hostiles begins on a deeply violent note (an aspect that pervades the plot from beginning to end). In 1892, Rosalie Quaid (Pike) witnesses the murder of her husband, as he fights off a group of armed Comanche warriors on horseback. They steal the horses, set fire to the ranch, and attempt to kill Rosalie and her children. She escapes narrowly as she runs into the woods for shelter, but is unable to save her three kids (the youngest of whom is a babe-in-arms). At Fort Berringer, New Mexico, hardened military veteran, Captain Joseph J Blocker (Bale), is out with his men to forcibly bring back an Apache family that has fled. Back at the headquarters, the small prison overflows with Native Americans. Blocker’s next assignment is to ensure the safe passage of the dying War Chief Yellow Hawk and his family (consisting of the man’s son, daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandchild) to their tribal home in Montana. This set of scenes is particularly telling, as the Captain expresses his reluctance to his superior (a Colonel) in the presence of a journalist. Captain Joseph Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk are sworn enemies, and the former is hell bent on not overseeing “the savage’s” unharmed return to his home. The Colonel reminds Blocker of his own savagery, and tells him that it is a direct order; if disobeyed, his exemplary military career will be tarnished by a court martial and suspended pension. The latter responds to the highhandedness of both his superior and the journalist, recalling some of the worst times he’s witnessed fighting the Chief and his kind. The following day, unexpectedly, Blocker picks his detail to assist in the treacherous journey to Montana. The small group consists of soldiers in great debt of their stoic captain. As they set off, tensions rise between Blocker and Yellow Hawk; the former challenges the chief to a knife fight, but he declines. Along the way, they notice the charred remains of the ranch that was recently torched. Blocker finds a still-in-shock Rosalie Quaid clutching her dead baby, with her deceased children by her side. The Native American Chief reminds Blocker that he may need the former’s expertise to deal with the murderous Comanche tribe and their looming presence. Survival is at stake, and the captain is saddled with the unenviable task of being at the helm.
The brilliance of Hostiles lies in the presentation of its many scenes. These range from heavy, deathly-serious, and intense to morbid, existential, and surprisingly touching. Among these gems are - Captain Blocker risking a near-court martial for insubordination/dereliction of duty; A grief stricken Rosalie Quaid digging her family’s graves with her bare hands before she finally gives vent to her seething emotions; A junior and senior soldier discussing what it feels like to take a human being’s life for the very first time; One of Blocker’s most trusted soldiers seeking forgiveness from the Chief for all the injustices inflicted upon the natives; the captain breaking down at the sight of his dead friend’s corpse; and Blocker coming to accept Yellow Hawk’s judgement and wisdom towards the end.
The captain’s restrained anger and desperate inner pain, along with his complex and hard-fought sense of conscience, are given credence by an outstanding Christian Bale. His lead character is every bit the villain of circumstance as he is the hero. I can go as far as to say that this is Bale’s best performance yet, but that isn’t saying very much; he has surprised us with his consummate skill before, and he will do so again. He remains, in my opinion, the finest character actor of his Hollywood generation (I say this despite the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Gary Oldman, Adrien Brody, and Philip Seymour Hoffman). In his role, he brings an almost Pacino-type intensity to screen.
I remember Rosamund Pike from such diverse films as Barney’s Version and Gone Girl. My admiration for her has only gone up a notch with her unforgettable portrayal of Rosalie Quaid. Pike’s onscreen grief, her eventual acceptance of a harrowing loss, and the indomitable spirit of humanity that comes shining through as a direct result, must make it to a master class in acting someday surely.
Hostiles scores high points in just about every category a film deserves to be rated on. It is a sweeping tale of tragedy and loss that some folks might not have the stomach for. But that doesn’t take away from its genius. No words will be enough to describe the effect it has had on me.