IT MAY run for more than two hours – and veer occasionally into self-indulgent cul de sacs – but Hostiles is a magnificent film. More Odyssey than a standard American western.
The film, beautifully shot by Masanobu Takayanagi, centres on the last task army captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is asked to complete before leaving service in 1892.
Service that has seen him carry out a litany of despicable acts against the native Indians. Crimes against humanity that have left him mono-syllabic and clutching a book written by Julius Caesar.
It is a job he is reluctant to carry out but threatened with the loss of his war pension and being court marshalled, he is bludgeoned into doing it. On horse, escorting an imprisoned – and cancer ridden Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) – some one thousand miles from New Mexico to his home in Montana. A chief who has committed similar war crimes as Blocker. In tow are the chief’s immediate family and Blocker’s detail – an odd assortment of soldiers, some gnarled like Blocker, others who have yet to make their first kill. Even a Frenchman is among them although he does not last long.
It is a journey through scrubland and canyons that is constantly fraught with danger and horror as the posse encounter murderous Comanche and their victims (alive and dead). Mid-journey they are also asked to escort a soldier found guilty of gruesome murders to the fate of the gallows (mission unaccomplished although he does meet his maker sooner than he would have liked).
In addition, they endure skirmishes with both thieving fur traders and landowners who are prepared to kill so as to prevent the chief returning home to his Valley of the Bears.
There is even madness in the camp. Only the obligatory rattlesnake death is omitted.
It all makes for bloody fare and a lot of killing (I lost count) although the murdering and scalping is intermittent. In between the shooting and knifings, we get soldiers apologising to Indians for their war crimes – and the wife of a former colleague of Blocker’s criticising the settlers’ all-too violent land grab.
There is even rapprochement between Blocker and Yellow Hawk as the latter closes in on home and death – helped by the fact that Blocker can speak Yellow Hawk’s language. War is war. Forgive and forget.
So lots of sand to soak up the overdose of spilt blood.
There is also a slow burn of a relationship between Blocker and Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) who is another individual that the detail pick up along the way.
Indeed, the early scenes of Rosalie clinging onto her dead baby (wrapped in a bloodied white shawl) while hiding from the Comanche – who have just murdered her two daughters and scalped her husband – are nerve-tingling and deeply upsetting (I could hardly watch). Pike says more with her eyes in the first 30 minutes of the film than she does through the spoken word. It is a mesmerising performance.
Like desert flowers, Blocker emerges from behind the walls he has built to protect himself from the past and insanity – and blossoms. A gentleman – despite his predilection for killing – who respects both Rosalie and Yellow Hawk. A strange brew of machismo, simmering hate and respect. A soldier in a mental straitjacket.
At some stage, will he be able to undo the jacket’s straps, put his bloody past behind him and start a new life full of milk and honey, thereby endorsing the American Dream? We get the answer – but only in the last frame of the film.
Yes, moustachioed Bale is as marvellous as dishevelled Pike is magnificent.
There are also a number of strong cameo performances from Peter Mullan (Lieutenant Colonel Ross McCowan), sweet voiced Jonathan Majors (Corporal Henry Woodsen) and Timothee Chalamet (Philippe DeJardin, our French private). Cameo because most – with the exception of McCowan – end up dead. Pretty quickly as well.
Add in a masterful score from Max Richter and you have a bloody masterpiece before your very eyes.
Some may argue over director Scott Cooper’s choice of ending – and some sanctimonious moments. But when push comes to shove, Hostiles is a cinematic ride well worth jumping on board – provided you can stomach the blood, gore and hangings.
Rosalie Quaid: Rosamund Pike
Captain Joseph Blocker: Christian Bale
Chief Yellow Hawk: Wes Studi
Corporal Henry Woodsen: Jonathan Majors
Lieutenant Colonel Ross McCowan: Peter Mullan
Private Philippe DeJardin: Timothee Chalamet
Director: Scott Cooper
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Music: Max Richter