AFI Fest Review: ‘HOSTILES’ is a sweeping, stinging, socially relevant Western
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
What rules are men bound by in a time when there are no rules? What ethics guide common decency? Does compassion cease to exist in a cruel, cold place? Is it possible kindness and empathy could return to those with the blackest of hearts? Can those who’ve seen the worst in humanity, those who’ve succumbed to the brutality of war, be capable of positive change? What does it take to change the essence of a man? Oh, wait. Sorry. That last one is from ON DEADLY GROUND. No, these are the heady questions writer-director Scott Cooper subtly asks in his character-driven Western, HOSTILES. This is a somber, contemplative, steadied film infused with resonant, modern social commentary. Not only does it utilize scale and scope elegantly, the slow-burning drama imparts an unshakable feeling. It’s not quite UNFORGIVEN, but I’ll take what the auteur is offering.
Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is a man whose heart has been made black as coal by the atrocities of war. He’s seen his Native American enemies scalp and butcher his men – and he’s done the same in return. Naturally he’s the one ordered to escort a dying prisoner, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family back to their reservation in Montana. He reluctantly agrees, bringing along his men – specifically his closest confidant, Sergeant Tommy Metz (Rory Cochrane), who too has seen the ravages of war take hold of his guilt-stricken soul. But their road trip takes a few twists and turns. Along the way they’re ambushed by Comanches, lose a few men in the skirmishes, and succumb to their own personal demons. They also pick up a grieving widow (Rosamund Pike, who gives a solid performance) who witnessed the slaughter of her entire family, and a defector (Ben Foster) who reminds Joe of what he could’ve become if he let hate take hold.
Cooper’s sweeping, gorgeous vistas, along with Masanobu Takayanagi’s transcendent cinematography, help bolster the narrative drive. The dangerous beauty of the land comes into full view, augmenting the atmospheric tension. The magnificence of the visuals stand in juxtaposition to the darkened, grief-filled, gritty souls of the characters. Cooper and company have a tangible understanding of the genre. Max Richter’s score also brings an entrancing soundscape, adding gravitas to a few pivotal sequences. In addition to Cooper’s big picture concepts, these are the manifested ghosts that will haunt you long after the credits roll.
That’s not to say there aren’t any stumbling blocks in the way of greatness. The fewer characters there are, the better Cooper is with his material. CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE best demonstrate his ease with clean, meaty material for a minimal number of leads. It’s clear that with both BLACK MASS and now this, Cooper is determined to make the next great, sprawling American ensemble piece. While that’s a noble aim, the talented filmmaker never quite brings his ensemble together. New characters are introduced and escorted away before we have time to get to know them. Some – like Cooper’s “good luck charm,” frequent collaborator Ryan Bingham – are well hidden and quickly shooed away. It also seems like there are more soldier escorts than were originally introduced, so there’s no “and then there was one” moment to track.
Overall, HOSTILES gives us a fully satisfying audience experience seeing a man re-discover his humanity after years of only seeing man’s inhumanity to man. In these murky times we’re living in, that’s a heartening, hope-filled notion. We’re all capable of understanding one another’s plights as long as we take the opportunity to do so.
HOSTILES opens on December 22.