Over the last decade we’ve received a slew of truly brilliant modern westerns, separating themselves from their predecessors with various flashes of thrilling originality, be they stylistic or thematic. For example, Inarittu’s The Revenant had its thunderous exploration of nature’s raw power, Tarantino’s Django Unchained moved the action to the antebellum South, and John Maclean’s Slow West was a raucously funny and surreal look at outsiders in America. Where Hostiles, the fourth film from the always unshowy Scott Cooper, first falls down is in its total lack of USP, a generic journey movie with gritty violence and occasional thrumming intensity, but little to consistently engage.
At its centre is yet another conflicted lawman close to retirement, this time Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a furious ex-Union soldier with years of pent-up hatred against Native Americans driving his actions. For his last mission, his smarmy colonel assigns him to return legendary Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his sacred lands where he can die in peace, accepted very reluctantly by Blocker. Along the way, he and his team encounter Rosalie Clayton (Rosamund Pike), a homesteader whose family has been brutally slaughtered by Comanche raiders. This sequence actually opens the film, and it’s intense and frightening, grimly efficient without self-consciously lingering on the horrors.
Cooper handles the short bursts of action with aplomb, and is even better at the highly strung build ups to these explosions of violence. Tensions always mount superbly just before the gunmen get down to their bloody business, livening up what can be quite a trudge of a film. Hostiles is undoubtedly overlong, and uses too much of its over two hour runtime on slow-motion close-ups while introducing interesting questions that only get the most cursory of examinations. Cooper and co-writer Donald E Stewart try to engage with the race relations and mental health problems of isolated men in 1892 but their script doesn’t have the intellectual heft to do so in a satisfying way.
Inconsistent performances don’t help the cause either. Pike’s role ends up being the most interesting, starting out overly reliant on broken wailing but convincingly growing more resilient and capable in the harsh wilds of untamed New Mexico, but no other arc is as compelling. It’s one of Bale’s least showy and most lived in roles in recent memory, but his more openly emotional scenes sometimes veer uncomfortably close to being comedic. Meanwhile, the Native cast, also including The New World’s Q’Orianka Kilcher and Suicide Squad’s Adam Beach, are left to either being dispensers of airy spiritual wisdom or terrifyingly unknowable savages.
There are more than a few hints of a good film buried within the mediocrity that is Hostiles, but it too often invites comparisons to vastly superior westerns, only further confirming its own unremarkability. Its central story is too chaotic – very few members of the ever-changing cast make a real impression – for the contrived ending to have any power, and bog-standard Great Plains visuals keep it from being particularly memorable. You’re best off just revisiting The Revenant for gruesome and thrilling wilderness survival, or waiting for the release of Sweet Country to see a film like this actually engage with indigenous stories.