Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Timothée Chalamet
Run Time: 135 mins
Hostiles is the latest film by Scott Cooper, a director whose work I have consistently enjoyed. Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart, received near unanimous praise from critics and audiences and earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar for his barnstorming performance. His second film, Out of the Furnace, received a decidedly mixed reception but I believe it is criminally underrated – a near-perfect revenge thriller that features some outstanding performances. Black Mass, his third film, thought not quite as good is still very solid, and marks a turning point in Johnny Depp’s lately waning career. Hostiles is a revisionist Western which sees Cooper reteams with his Out of the Furnace lead, Christian Bale, as Captain Joseph Blocker, who is tasked to escort the cancer-ridden Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Halk (Wes Studi) back to his homeland along with his family.
Hostiles is another winner – a visceral, downbeat and often gut-wrenching watch. There are many scenarios and moments in the film that are emotionally sapping and Cooper puts these characters through hell. Cooper again, manages to get the best out of his actors. The three leads – Bale, Pike and Studi, are all on top form, all giving career-defining performances. Bale’s Captain is gruff, sombre and constantly thrown arduous challenges both mentally and physically. Rosamund Pike’s character brutally loses all of her family in the very memorable first scene of the film and is psychologically damaged and tormented. There is one moment in particular when she first lays eyes on Studi’s tribe which reminds her of past horrors which Pike conveys brilliantly. It is testament to Wes Studi’s performance as Yellow Halk how much of an impression he is able to make – the character is underwritten but Studi is really able to do a lot with the role and manages to convey the bittersweet juxtaposition of his family beside him and the cancer eating away at him. Studi’s performance allows one to imagine how ruthless this war chief may have been back in his day but now is a more mellow, world-weary individual who simply wants to return to his homeland with his family.
Unfortunately, this notion of characters being underwritten is where the film falls short. Bale’s Captain is accompanied by many famous faces in his unit, but it feels like a roster that frequently gets swapped out for someone new when someone dies. Perhaps most disappointing is Ben Foster, a wonderful screen presence who suits the Western genre to a tee. I expected him to make more of an impression, but he has virtually nothing to work with. However, the two actors who make the biggest impression out of this group, despite still being underwritten, are Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane, who both appeared in Black Mass and Cochrane in particular, continues to prove why he is one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated talents.
Hostiles also has problems narratively. The film is a little overlong, as the journey these characters take is rather extensive. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the film would have succeeded better if Cooper had chosen to develop his characters more and lose some of the narrative baggage. I’m also of the opinion that the film ends one scene too late. The final scene states the obvious and is a little too neat in wrapping its narrative. It would have been much more cryptic had Cooper ended the film a scene before, which would have been in keeping with the rest of the film and its decision not to reveal everything.
At least, Cooper manages to create a wholly believable atmosphere even if the narrative and character development are somewhat lacking. The cinematography by Cooper-regular, Masanobu Takayanagi is jaw-dropping – there are frequent moments of awe in terms of how Takayanagi shoots the landscapes and he really makes the most of the locations, which refer visually to the Western classic, The Searchers. Max Richter’s score is also expectedly hypnotic – the score fits in so well with the film and is endlessly atmospheric, groaning and distorting with the sand flying around in the desert.
There is lots to wonder in awe at in Hostiles and the film explores its titular notion in many different ways through its characterisations and narrative. The craft and performances of the film elevate the film exponentially, almost enough to cover up the slightly meandering narrative and lack of character development. It’s certainly a lot more subtle in execution than Black Mass as Cooper regularly attempted to shadow Scorsese’s gangster classics, which worked but it didn’t leave much up to audience imagination. Cooper certainly has more commentary on the Western genre, a genre that many have commented has died. This is simply not true. Hostiles is further proof of the Caweltian transformation of the genre and stands up as an additional companion piece to recent Western works.
Despite some structural problems, Hostiles has stuck in my mind long after the screening and it’s a film that I think, will have a lot more to reveal about itself on rewatching. This is a film not to miss and actively seek out in its rather small release.