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Hostiles review – powerful but preachy Frontier fable | reviews, news & interviews

Hostiles review – powerful but preachy Frontier fable

Hostiles review – powerful but preachy Frontier fable

Scott Cooper's long, hard ride through the last days of the Indian Wars

Soldier blue: Christian Bale as Captain Joseph Blocker

The last time we saw Christian Bale in a western, he was playing the downtrodden rancher Dan Evans in James Mangold’s punchy remake of 3.10 to Yuma.

No doubt it was valuable experience for his role in Hostiles, Scott Cooper’s smouldering flashback to the last days of the Frontier, where Bale plays veteran US Cavalry captain Joseph Blocker.

Bale also has previous with Cooper, having starred in his blue collar drama Out of the Furnace, where (as in Yuma) the actor played a fundamentally decent man being ground down by a pitiless fate. In Hostiles, his character isn’t quite so clear-cut. We learn that he’s a battle-hardened veteran of the Indian Wars, having spent decades killing and rounding up the indigenous tribes so the white man can fulfil his manifest destiny. “I’ve killed savages cos that’s my job,” he growls.

But it’s 1892, the old world is disappearing, and Blocker is about to ride into retirement. When he’s given orders to shepherd Yellow Hawk, a cancer-stricken Cheyenne chief, and his family out of captivity to his tribal homeland in Montana, he flatly refuses, embittered by past experiences of seeing his soldiers cruelly slaughtered by Yellow Hawk’s men. Only the threat of a court martial and the loss of his army pension persuades him to reconsider. It’s an important job, explains his commanding officer, because the president himself has ordered it. The implication is that it’s a political PR stunt. Christian Bale in HostilesWith a small group of soldiers, Blocker sets out on his thousand-mile ride, and it becomes a journey both external and internal. When they come across the burned-out homestead where Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) lived with her husband and children before they were massacred by a bloodthirsty gang of Comanches, they’re startled to find the traumatised Rosalee sitting in the wreckage, still clutching the bloodied corpse of her baby. Blocker suddenly shows unexpected warmth and empathy, Rosalee’s plight (you infer) prompting flashbacks to similar instances in his past.

It’s a clue that there might still be something redeemable inside the dehumanised Blocker, who these days would be undergoing therapy for PTSD. When his group find themselves under attack from the same Comanche raiders, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, from Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans, pictured above with Bale) proposes that the Cheyenne collaborate with the soldiers, since he knows all too well that the vengeful Comanches will stop at nothing. Blocker is initially opposed, but when the attackers start picking them off, he’s forced to reach a grudging accommodation with Yellow Hawk.

As their journey progresses, the relationships within the group change gradually. The cost of military service is rammed home by the mounting casualty list among the soldiers, and when Blocker has to leave behind his long-time comrade Corporal Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), he can barely control his emotions (and Woodsen is black, so perhaps Blocker isn’t just a murderous racist after all).

For his sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), this is a ride too far, and he’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown. His tearful apology to Yellow Hawk for the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples feels uncomfortably like post-dated PC interventionism, a fourth-wall-busting message from Liberal Hollywood. There’s a further bulletin in this vein when the party stop at Fort Winslow, and over dinner, the CO’s wife launches a plea for the US government to do something about the plight of Indians rotting in prisons or starving on reservations. You can’t fault the sentiment, but it sounds like a New York Times op ed from a century later.

Hostiles works best when it lets the drama do the talking. Rosalee (pictured above) gradually forms a bond with the Cheyenne women based on their mutual sufferings. The women are abused by a band of white fur-trappers, and it signals the way violence has become an uncontrollable force ravaging all sides, leaving a trail of destruction that might never be undone. When Blocker’s party escort a prisoner, Sgt Willis (Ben Foster), who’s facing execution for murdering a family of “hostiles”, it turns out he’s an old campaigning buddy of Blocker’s. He remembers what Blocker has done, and he can’t understand why it’s him who’s cast as the criminal here.

The best of Hostiles is powerful and memorable, its strengths amplified by Masanobu Takayanagi’s haunting cinematography and Max Richter’s score. Bale and Pike are both formidable, infusing their characters with a brooding weight of emotion all the more effective for remaining internalised and mostly unspoken. The Cheyenne characters remain under-developed, though Studi gives Yellow Hawk an aura of bleak, stoical grandeur. It’s a shame Cooper couldn’t dial down the authorial preachiness, as if he didn’t quite trust himself to allow the medium to be the message.

Blocker's thousand-mile ride becomes a journey both external and internal


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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