The first two scenes of Hostiles, Scott Cooper’s harsh and uncompromising western, depict a familiar cycle of cruelty. In the first, a white family living deep in New Mexico Territory are attacked by a Comanche war party, with only the mother, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), surviving. In the second, the hard-faced Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) rounds up an Apache family and drags them to an American fort, where other Native Americans have been imprisoned for years without trial. Both sequences are gory, tough to watch, and short on dialogue, with Cooper intent on showing a world severely lacking in empathy.
Hostiles is a classic revisionist western, stripping away the traditional notions of good guys and bad guys on the American frontier and instead digging into the poisonous effect of decades of colonial warfare against the continent’s indigenous peoples. But though the film seeks to avoid many of the genre’s cliches, it nonetheless ends up slipping into some well-worn and dull dynamics of noble Indians teaching important lessons to their American occupiers. And since this is a movie directed by Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), the best way for everyone to learn those lessons is through scenes of gritty violence.
The film is set in 1892, and Blocker is a veteran of America’s ongoing wars in the newly settled West. A gruff man with a mustache that’s large enough to cover almost his entire face, Blocker is avowedly racist and distrustful of Native Americans, though he speaks their languages and understands their territory better than any American soldier. Because of that, he’s picked by his commanding officer to escort a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his tribal lands in Montana, despite personal enmity between the two over the horrors they inflicted on each other in battle. If you were being glib (and Cooper is occasionally guilty of being glib), you could call it an odd-couple drama of sorts.
Bale plays Blocker as a man who has entirely locked his emotions away, save for his loyalty to his country and his suspicion of men like Yellow Hawk, whom he orders clapped in chains for their journey. Bale turns every line into a whispered grumble; it’s a haunted take on the cowboy notion of American heroism, a man who’s used to all kinds of adversity on the frontier. Studi, a great actor who has a long career playing fearsome warriors in films like Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans, is equally stoic but is given even less character shading.
Yellow Hawk is preceded by his reputation, with Blocker describing the gruesome aftermath of battles with the Cheyenne. But in the movie, Studi’s job is mostly to sit nobly atop a horse and speak pithy words of wisdom, so the darker history of warfare Blocker is trying to paint doesn’t come through very clearly for the viewer. Most of Hostiles’ 135-minute running time is devoted to Blocker finally seeing that Yellow Hawk and his fellow travelers (played by Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) are deserving of respect. An obvious realization, perhaps, but not one that comes quickly, or with much nuance.
No, everything in Hostiles—be it hatred or admiration—is learned through suffering. Soon enough, Blocker and his party come across Rosalie, help her bury her husband and three children, and invite her to join them. Yellow Hawk’s compassion for Rosalie in the face of utter devastation helps Blocker understand that not all Native Americans are monsters—a fact he realizes again and again as Yellow Hawk and his people help him fight off Comanche war parties in their hazardous journey north.
There are lots of gun battles in between, as well as majestic photography of the American West’s forests and deserts. But Hostiles seems less interested in character development; Bale, Studi, and Pike are all playing people who have witnessed terrible brutality and seem somewhat detached as a result. There’s a little more liveliness from the ensemble of soldiers around them, including Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet, and Rory Cochrane, but only a little (and they largely exist as cannon targets for each of the drawn-out battles Blocker’s group ends up embroiled in).
All of Cooper’s films are focused on grim men grappling with their demons, from Jeff Bridges’s alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart to Johnny Depp’s duplicitous, reptilian gangster in Black Mass. But they’re all movies that emerge with surprisingly simple conclusions about redemption and good and evil. Hostiles is set in a bleak, bigoted world but tells the tale of a man somehow shaking all of his prejudices loose; it’s an epic that hints at subtler ambiguities but forgets to actually include them in the story. As a handsome-looking western, Hostiles does the trick, but when it tries to probe deeper, it just comes up short.