This is the second best western I’ve seen this year. The best — The Ballad of Lefty Brown — I was lucky enough to catch at the San Diego International Film Festival (when it was released a few weeks ago, it didn’t have a San Diego showing, so only the lucky attendants of the Festival this year were able to see it.
Hostiles starts with Comanche renegades killing an entire family, with only the mom (Rosamund Pike) making it out alive. Soon after, there’s a scene with the American Cavalry abusing Native American prisoners. I rolled my eyes, wondering if writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Gods and Generals, Out of the Furnace, also with Christian Bale) was going to go out of his way to make this point. And he does similar things later in the movie, but thankfully, it all ends up working.
Officer Joseph Blocker (Bale) is told by his commanding officer (the always intimidating Stephen Lang) that he’ll be taking a Cheyenne chief and his family back to their homeland. The chief is dying of cancer, and the President suggested it. Since he’s been fighting Native Americans for so long, Blocker’s not pleased. Especially since Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has killed many of his friends. Once they head out for Montana, they come across Rosalie (Pike). She hasn’t eaten and is rather traumatized, so they bring her along. She’s not the only one with some PTSD. Blocker seems to have a mild dose of it, as do a couple of his soldiers along this journey.
Blocker, who is such an angry man, predictably warms up to the Native Americans he’s escorting. That’s helped along by the fact that they helped out when Comanches ambushed them. It’s impressive the way Bale can be so menacing in the beginning, and yet he becomes a caring person. It helps that he has that thick mustache, which makes it look like he’s always frowning. It also made me think how Gary Oldman had to sit in a makeup chair for 3 hours before each day of filming as Churchill. In Western’s, you just have to grow a Sam Elliott ‘stache.
It’s not just Bale that’s impressive in this film. This ensemble cast is terrific. Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, and Timothee Chalamet weren’t given enough to do, though (although with the praise in Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet probably isn’t griping).
Jesse Plemons (American Made) has a great look, and is good in a small role, as is Scottish character actor Peter Mullan (find his movie Criminal with John C. Reilly, which was criminally unseen).
Ben Foster, so great as one of the bad guys in the Western 3:10 to Yuma (also starring Bale), plays a similar character here. He’s a prisoner that Blocker is asked to transport.
Almost as important as the actors, is the tremendous job cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi did. There are some stunning shots in this movie. Sometimes it’s a densely wooded forest, other times it’s a gorgeous sunset or cloudy skies on the trail.
There were a handful of scenes that didn’t work for me. One of those involves Plemons talking about the first person he killed. It felt too much like a similar scene in the much better Unforgiven.
There were so many terrific scenes, though. One of those was when Bale visits an injured soldier in the infirmary. It’s the second scene he had done where he’s trying to hold in his tears, and it’s heartbreaking.
The director was smart not to try to force a romance, or put in comedic moments.
Oh, and there’s one small thing about the score that annoyed me. It was done by Max Richter, who did great work with Miss Sloane and Waltz with Bashir. For the most part it works here, but three different times when it started in, I thought it sounded like “Silent Night.” I brought that up to my wife and she said, “I know, I thought the same thing! It was so bizarre.”
I was going to give this movie 3 stars out of 5, and the group of four people I was watching this with kept giving me a hard time, saying it deserved at least 4. I’ll compromise and give it 3 ½ stars out of 5.