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Scott Cooper is one of the most focused and intense filmmakers working today and the proof of that comes in his latest film, the western, Hostiles. Hostiles stars Christian Bale as military officer in the New Mexico territory who has spent over a decade fighting against Indians and securing the new American west from the people who rightfully owned that land.
Bale’s Captain Joseph Blocker is at the end of his military career when he’s told he has one more mission. The President of the United States has decided that Indians held as prisoners in the territories are to be freed and specifically, an Indian Chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is to be returned to his native home in Montana. Because the Chief is in poor health and the passage from New Mexico to Montana is lengthy and dangerous, Blocker must assemble a group and accompany his former enemy.
The early scenes of Blocker protesting the assignment given to him by his commanding officer, played with imperious glee by Stephen Lang, are the lowpoint of Hostiles. Cooper mistakenly shoehorns a reporter from Harper’s Magazine, played by Bill Camp, who acts as Captain Exposition, calling out Blocker for his cruelty on the battlefield and reputation for brutally murdering innocent and warring Indians alike.
When Blocker’s pension is threatened he finally relents but only after getting his best friend, Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) as a member of his team. Metz had his guns taken away after their last mission and was headed toward retirement after being diagnosed with Melancholia, what we would recognize today as suicidal ideation. Giving him his guns back is Blocker’s misguided attempt at giving his friend purpose again.
Parallel to this story is the story of a family brutally murdered by Indians. Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie Quaid who we see early in the film teaching her daughters language skills when her husband rushes in and tells her to take the girls and run. Rosalie fails to heed his warning quick enough and only she survives the attack, including the loss of a months old baby.
Needless to say, when Blocker and company discover Rosalie, it deeply increases the tensions between Blocker and Yellow Hawk. Here is where the story of Hostiles kicks into gear. Rosalie’s shock and grief moves the film into some very emotional territory and kicks off the arc of the movie wherein Blocker and Yellow Hawk must come to terms with the atrocities that both committed, regardless of their motivations and which side history may come down on.
I was uncertain about Hostiles as the opening scenes played out. The early scenes are a little stilted and awkward and at times feel as if they are making the point that both, white settlers and Indians were in the wrong. It seemed like the filmmakers were equivocating a dark portion of American history and I was getting upset. I don’t require a movie to reflect my worldview but historic revisionism of this kind is a particular trigger for me.
Thankfully, Hostiles begins to change gears. Instead of trying to revise history, the story of Hostiles becomes the story of specific characters, specific people who don’t have to bear the weight of history. Christian Bale and Wes Studi do yeoman’s work to craft complex portraits of complex men. One is perhaps more sympathetic than the other given historic context but I believed fully in the way their relationship evolved.
I should also cite the exceptional supporting cast which includes Rory Cochrane’s engrossingly morose performance, Rosamund Pike’s moving portrait of shock and grief and a cameo by one of the most fascinating and uniquely compelling character actors working today. I will not spoil who it is, those who know his work will get a chill when his identity is revealed and I don’t want to spoil that. Just stay away from the IMDB cast list.
Hostiles is engrossing, compelling and surprising throughout. The action is vital, violent and dangerous, it underlines the storytelling brilliantly. Scott Cooper directs Hostiles with confidence and skill. His fourth feature following the remarkable Crazy Heart, Black Mass, and Out of the Furnace is arguably his best work yet. As Cooper continues to mature as a director I can only imagine that his work will get even more interesting and I cannot wait to see what comes next.