As you well know, Death rides on every hand.
Well, another day, another painfully underrated Scott Cooper film. Hostiles is the tale of a racist army officer assigned to transport a dying Indian chief back to his homeland. The film has a truly impeccable cast. Christian Bale is, once again, breathtakingly good as the lead army officer; it’s a performance that starts minimal and grows both more interior and more exterior at the same time. Wes Studi, veteran Native actor, is perfectly cast as the implacable Indian chief. Rory Cochrane stands out of the ensemble with a really, really wonderful performance; he was one of the standouts in Cooper’s last film, Black Mass, as a gangster grown increasingly sick of the violence that surrounds him and his part here is not dissimilar. He plays a career soldier suffering from severe depression and intense mental and emotional trauma; it’s hard to call it PTSD, because he isn’t “post” anything, but rather still in the world of violence that has broken him. Ben Foster shows up in a small supporting role and he really knocks it out of the park as a troubled murderer on the way to hang for his crimes. Last, but certainly not least, is Rosamund Pike as a traumatized frontier woman that has suffered the loss of her entire family to an Indian raid; she is, I think, career best and she handles all the emotions necessary to this character with a perfect kind of precision.
The film neatly dodges a lot of the traps it could have fallen into. I was expecting something of a redemption film; it isn’t that, not in the least. While Bale’s character is changed by the journey, it would be far out of line to say that he is in anyway redeemed. But these are all characters who have both done evil things and had evil things done to them. But this isn’t a movie about them coming to realize that racism is bad or healing themselves through personal connection. It’s a movie that holds these men up for us to see and refuses to let us see them as monsters; while they’ve done monstrous things, they are still humans. But the film doesn’t flinch from portraying the cruel, brutal, hateful violence they’ve all dished out in a grim, visceral and painful way. The film isn’t excusing these characters by any means, but it does put them in context. The film has a morally complicated and unsettling screenplay that refuses to really make peace with anything exactly. To the degree the film has a message, it’s simply, I think, a very old one, but one still unheeded: an atmosphere of constant violence & hate is a cancer to the soul. Ultimately, there’s a nihilistic senselessness to the violence here. There’s a moment near the climax of the film where you realize that the film is ramping up for a final gun battle and the reaction I had was very surprising. Watching a certain kind of movie, I’d have felt exhilaration for this climactic action scene; watching Hostiles, I felt only a profound sense of weariness, much as Bale’s character seems to as the threat of violence gets closer and closer.
Hostiles wasn’t quite the film I was expecting, but it’s a masterpiece. It’s grim and unflinching in its portrayal of the truly evil violence carried out and the men responsible, but it never lets you forget that they’re just that: men. In some way, they’ve managed to carve out a way of thinking that allows them to justify themselves and often, even when characters are in disagreement, they’re both wrong. Most of the characters here are blinded by belief; they believe what they need to believe in order to be who they are and do what they do. As the film explores this, it becomes a film that feels pertinent to our society today. It’s a dark film and a challenging one, perhaps too dark for a mainstream audience, which may explain the tacked on final scene that tries to find a certain measure of redemption for a couple of characters. This scene really feels jarring and out of place with the film as it’s been and I wish it had been left off; it feels clumsy and calibrated to give us a moment of hope, but after the previous two hours, it can only ring false. Still, it’s the single misstep in this masterful, powerful film and it’s kind of telling that I’m bringing up the final scene at the very end of this review mainly because I only just remembered it. It’s the dark, challenging, discomfiting body of the film that will stay with you. 4 stars.
tl;dr – brilliant cast brings a dark and challenging story of violence & hate to the screen; neatly dodges clichés and delivers a powerful punch. 4 stars.