Versatility. Range. To me, these are the hallmarks of great acting – and they have served Christian Bale (The Big Short) well, from The Fighter to American Hustle. Hostiles marks his return to the Western, his first since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. One would hope that the genre has evolved enough to be devoid of stereotypes, while maintaining historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t sacrifice artistic merit. Hostiles didn’t break new ground within the genre, but emotional dramatic turns from Bale and co-star Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) make it a worthwhile film.
Set in 1892, the film depicts a rough and tumble American landscape of centuries past. Bale stars as Joseph Blocker, an Army captain tasked with a final mission before retirement, which he begrudgingly accepts. He must transport a dying Apache chief and his family back to their home state of Montana, as the elder is riddled with Cancer and has been granted mercy to die on his homeland. Violent and racist, Blocker’s visceral contempt for Native Americans could not be more obvious, and he pleads in futility to be excused from the mission. His superior officer ignores those complaints, and Blocker leads a small party of soldiers in the transport of Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, A Million Ways to Die in the West) and his family, including his adult children and grandson.
Historical accuracy is important, and while it is true that some early Native Americans terrorized White settlers expanding West, it is equally true that White colonizers terrorized the indigenous populations already here. Be that as it may, the film did an effective job in its first act, presenting both sides of a philosophical coin in its depiction of brutality. In a riveting opening scene, a Comanche tribe descends upon a family to steal their horses. They slaughtered them all, save for Pike’s character Rosalie, now a grieving mother and widow. Blocker and company encounter the woman en route, and she joins their small, weary procession.
Hostiles is quite simply a movie about a journey from point A to point B. The strength of the film is in the richness and depth of the characters and the performances. The Captain is a figure whom you can’t quite root for or against. Initially Blocker is cruel, failing to see the humanity in his charge. However, in moments with the soldiers under his command and in his interaction with Rosalie, we see genuine affection and tenderness, a reminder of the complexity of human nature and the duality that lies within all of us. He is an effective leader, engendering loyalty that is met with a deep and loving gratitude. As they encounter peril in their journey, circumstances force Blocker to amend his dealings with Yellow Hawk and to forge a new, albeit begrudging respect as they face a common enemy together.
An air of sadness hangs over the film, giving it a somber tone throughout. I was moved by its theme of reflection, as several characters bleakly assessed their own careers and lives, burdened by the weight of loss. I was particularly struck by a poignant scene between two lieutenants, as the younger (Jesse Plemons, The Post) reflects on his first killing. The contrast between the two men was powerful, the older immune to regret over certain lives but not others. This emotional compartmentalization exemplified the cynicism of war and of life generally, and it was portrayed beautifully.
My critique of the film boils down to a matter of taste, of whether or not one can get past the limitations of the genre and the fact that it isn’t a “feel good” movie. Hostiles was a fine film, featuring another excellent performance by Christian Bale, and a rich emotional turn from Rosamund Pike, which may be enough for some moviegoers.