We are in Mexico, it is 1892, and this is a tortured western, or more accurately, a western about tortured souls, not just one, as in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), but almost every character, and maybe a wonky horse or two, all set in a tortured landscape. Everybody walks about bumping into trees or stands motionless in a downpour of rain as if traumatised. Characters speak in monotone mumbles auditioning for a part in an adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
Relentlessly bleak it may be, but it’s a serious, thoughtful work of cinema. Rather like a deeply worked canvas by Rothko, it plays on your emotions.
I suppose we should not be taken by surprise with the film’s dark tone. Any film starring Christian Bale is invariably full of intensity, men suffering lots of mental and physical pain, while the women folk are sexually brutalised by macho men, there apparently being no other use for a woman other than cooking, and washing clothes.
The story comes from the script and direction of Scott Cooper – good Scots lineage there – the director who gave us Crazy Heart (2009), a brothers and blood saga Out of the Furnace, (2014 – also starring Bale), and a nasty tale of Boston gangsters in Black Mass, (2015). He’s smart enough to wrap his subject matter in genre categories, and for the first time, to my mind, he gets it about right this time around.
Hostiles begins with Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), introduced to us knocking back whisky in near-pitch-darkness, his facial hair soggy with booze as he growls through a story about man’s capacity for violence. He does a lot of talking about man’s capacity for violence, at dawn, lunch, late afternoon, supper time, and just before shut-eye on a ground sheet under a tree. Nobody tells him to shut the hell up. That sets the tone from thereon in – everybody growls like a tape recorder running too slow. Perhaps they took their cue from Bale doing his Batman impersonation in a moustache, perhaps Cooper directed them to do it.
I have to admit each of these exchanges is dramatically very effective thanks to the committed acting of the performers, but run them together and you wonder why Bale’s rag-taggle band of stray characters don’t have a single joke to share between them.
Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), the hero of Hostiles, suffers from an inability to distinguish native Indians from rabid dogs. He can’t see that they feel, weep, and bleed because he does none of those things. Like Scotland’s Orange Lodge zealots who hate independence supporters, he’s a full-blown, fully formed bigot who despises anything that rides a horse bareback and wears a feather in his hair. “Like ants, they just keep comin’,” he-mumbles in reference to a group of Native Americans he and his search team have corralled and dragged in to the local fort.
Blocker is hardly back in the safety of his regiment when his commander, Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang), tosses him an unwelcome commission, escorting a cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from the fort where they are imprisoned to their home territory, Montana’s Valley of the Bears. (What with Chief Willoughby in Three Billboards at death’s door with cancer, things are getting a mite repetitious.) The Valley of the Bears is where Yellow Hawk wants to die.
At first Blocker refuses outright, right to the point of mutiny. The chief can rot in prison. He saw some of his comrades die at the hands of Yellow Hawk. Threat of losing his pension has Blocker cooperate, but so sickened is he by a task that runs counter to his instincts and principles he walks out into long grass, gun in hand and sinks to his knees. Blocker’s racism that has every ‘redskin’ a “wretched savage” is no long a simple decision of good and bad. He has to fulfil his honour as an admired soldier and tend to a band of hostiles he’d rather execute on the spot.
From this moment the story takes off in good strong, fascinating style enriched by a superb musical score of foreboding by Max Richter. The music perfectly suits the terrain the unholy band traverse, and the weather that goes with it. And to back up the score Cooper has collaborated with Masanobu Takayanagi, a gifted cinematographer has worked with before, whose photography here is as good as the acting.
An accomplished ensemble cast breathes life into the film’s moral quandaries. Rosamund Pike is pitch perfect as a newly widowed mother, grieving over the loss of all her children slaughtered outside their farm homestead, ready and willing to learn how to handle the worst of human nature. Scotland’s Peter Mullan makes an appearance as one of Blocker’s admirers, a retired officer, full of praise for his gruff young hero.
After Bale the actor that grabs your attention is Studi, noble as he can be as the warrior on his final journey. With his leonine features and regal posture, his stoical Yellow Hawk offers an imposing counterpoint to Bale’s morally confused and introspective Blocker. In westerns of old that role would be no more than a cipher to the drama, but Studi makes him solid flesh and blood, and we are soon rooting for him though we know he has killed many a white man, and stolen his horse and rifle. On the other hand, Blocker has “more scalps than Sitting bull” but our sympathies don’t lie with his predicament.
At no moment does the story give away how Blocker might attain redemption, but we know it will happen one way or the other for we are given an indication early in the tragedy. When he comes upon Rosealie Quad’s (Roseamund Pike), burnt down cabin Blocker’s humanity takes hold and he instructs his officers not to waken her children, each one dead lying under blankets. In this Bale is believable, an army officer exercising his professionalism to the letter, and a bit more.
Bale is the centre of the drama from start to finish, but apart from a few moments of welcome humour, he never varies his expression, internalising most of his emotions, until he cannot endure anguish any longer. And as I mention earlier, whenever we need to know how Blocker feels Max Richter’s wonderful brooding score, a full orchestra and strings, is there to swell the moment.
This is a story that you know took place dozens of times in the American mid-west where the Indian was driven off his land by the relentless advance of the white man and his greed and his syphilis. If you can stomach the solemnity of this work, and you like westerns, you won’t mind the slow pace of the unhappy band while they make their way to their destination in more ways than one.
- Star rating: Three and a half
- Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Stephen Lang, Peter Mullan
- Director: Scott Cooper
- Writer: Scott Cooper
- Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi
- Composer: Max Richter
- Rating: 15
- Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?