'Hostiles': Film Review | Telluride 2017

A smart and sorrowful Western.

Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi and Ben Foster star in Scott Cooper's moody drama about an army vet who escorts a Native American chief and his family from Arizona to Montana.

The specter of sudden and brutal death hangs over everyone all the time in Hostiles, a mournful, sorrowful, persistently powerful Western set in a world of beauty, tears and blood. There's little new that writer-director Scott Cooper, in his fourth and best feature, can really add to what other films have said about the terrible inevitabilities embedded in the epic story of the settling of America's frontier. But potent dramatic dynamics and the filmmaker's self-evident deep immersion and investment in his material enrich this vivid account of the last spasms of Native American resistance in the 1890s. Attracting a significant theatrical audience to this grim tale will be an imposing task, whereas the cast and subject matter might actually attract considerably more discerning viewers on home screens.

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer,” reads the D.H. Lawrence pronouncement that opens the film. While one might argue that this accusation could be applied to countless other dominant cultures at one period or another, the quote is ironically followed onscreen by the sight, not of U.S. soldiers, but of rampaging Apaches raiding the isolated cabin of a white settler family and butchering all the inhabitants but for the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who manages to hide.

At a nearby fort in the Arizona Territory, things are winding down. The Indian Wars have reached their last gasps — ”It's gotta be about the end of them,” the commanding officer observes — although there is one mission left, to escort ailing longtime prisoner Chief Yellowhawk (Wes Studi) up to his Montana homeland to die.

It's an assignment veteran Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) tries to refuse. Taciturn and raspy-voiced, Blocker at first comes off like a crusty man-of-few-words hard-ass who, regarding Yellowhawk as a butcher, would sooner just string the man up and be done with it. But over the long haul he emerges as a complex, many-sided character — a haunted, educated figure who reads Julius Caesar in the original Latin, has seen quite enough of the foul business of subduing the natives (he also speaks their language) and is well aware of the dangers that such a journey entails. Under threat of court martial, he's finally forced to agree to this last order, after which he intends to retire back East.

Setting out from the red-and-sand-colored landscapes of the little-populated desert, Blocker leads a small party of soldiers (which diversely includes a black man as well as a West Point graduate), along with Yellowhawk and a few of his family members. In short order they come across the catatonic Pike, who naturally becomes hysterical at the sight of more Indians. With no choice but to take her along, Blocker has to watch this wailing woman more closely even than his prisoners, as she seems dead set on suicide.

Before long, however, this party of nearly a dozen misfits achieves a needed unity in the face of shared threat upon entering Comanche territory. After an initial raid in which the black soldier is severely injured, Yellowhawk proclaims that, “We must unite and start as one for one.” In agreement, Blocker unchains his prisoners and, when Pike begins to calm down, the knee-jerk suspicion and cross-currents of hatred among disparate people begin to subside.

All the same, anyone you come across in the Wild West must be regarded with caution; letting down your guard is the last thing you can afford to do. When the group makes it to the next outpost of civilization, Fort Collins, Colorado, Blocker becomes saddled with a dangerous criminal, Philip Wills (Ben Foster in creepily unpredictable mode), who needs to be escorted north. This crafty rascal adds a commonplace but welcome wild-card, bad-guy element to the group, as does an ornery Wyoming land baron who'd rather shoot the wayfarers than let them cross his land.

Based on a heavily researched manuscript left behind by the late screenwriter Donald Stewart (Missing), Cooper's screenplay uses its setting both to employ classical Western tropes and to reflect in a modern way on history's legacy, both good and bad. It's a bit of a modern cliché to portray the Native Americans as wise ones of few words, and more vibrations might profitably have been set off between them and Pike, whose family, after all, has been decimated by them.

Beautiful to watch, however, is the slow, incremental flowering of Bale's character. We learn nothing at all specific of his past, but this is a man whose long-term commitment to his country has, after many years of service, left him with nothing to show for it other than a bitter view of the human condition in which killing is a way of life. Blocker's intelligence, which he displays only when he needs to, has served him well, while his toughness, mental and physical, has been essential to his survival. But where can he go from here? The script and the performance reveal the man's makeup with admirable subtlety and to rewarding ends, even if the prevailing mood is one of seldom relieved despair. The ensemble of supporting players is first-rate.

One of the great pleasures of Hostiles rests in beholding its makers' great sensitivity to the ever-changing landscape over the northward course of roughly 1,500 miles. Cooper's West is not a generic one but a series of progressions, from deserts and open plains to moist green forests and rugged mountains. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi captures it all splendidly but without fuss, while production designer Donald Graham Burt has contributed sharply contrasting accounts of two army outposts.

Contemplative and absorbing rather than rip-roaring and exciting, the film will likely play better to Western connoisseurs than to general and younger audiences, but it's an estimable piece of work grounded by a fine-grain sensibility and an expertly judged lead performance.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Production: Way Point Entertainment, Le Grisbi

Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Peter Mullan, Scott Wilson, Paul Anderson, Timothee Chalamet, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Q'orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, Bill Camp, Scott Shepherd, Ryan Bingham

Director: Scott Cooper

Screenwriter: Scott Cooper, based on the manuscript by Donald Stewart

Producers: John Lesher, Ken Kao, Scott Cooper

Executive producers: Will Weiske, Donald Stewart

Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi

Production designer: Donald Graham Burt

Costume designer: Jenny Eagan

Editor: Tom Cross

Music: Max Richter

Casting: Jo Edna Boldin, Rene Haynes, Francine Maisler

133 minutes