Written by Aaron Radcliff:
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost the end of January already. The end of the month signals the coming finality of the bland, start-of-year release schedule. That’s not to say February releases are great or January ones are complete dross, but there’s a reason the first twelfth of the year is predominantly filled with re-releases for Oscar season or movies going nationwide that originally came out to only a select audience during December. Hostiles just happens to be one of those movies.
Based on the story by Donald E. Stewart, Hostiles focuses on Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) and a group of soldiers as they escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home in Montana. Along the way, the group encounters the recently-widowed Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) who accompanies the group on their journey.
Right off the bat, we’re introduced to the brutality that’s in store when a Comanche party attacks and kills Rosalie’s family. Not only are we presented with one of the main threats to the group, but this lays the groundwork for much of what the crux of the film is about: Trauma.
What could’ve easily been a traditional Western instead gives us the setting and action while shifting its focus on the characters and their internal struggles. PTSD, racism, depression, suicide, the rigors of war, and more are all explored to some degree or another. Admittedly some (like dealing with trauma and PTSD) are explored well, while others (like racism and depression) aren’t handled as well. That’s not to say they’re done bad, but it could’ve been done better.
This is a depressing film. That needs to be known going into it. Unlike most modern Westerns which focus far more on the journey and the story, this feels more like a slow-moving character study. Halfway through we have half our characters traded in for new ones and a change of plans, but the focus remains on the main handful of characters and their turmoil.
The halftime change-up to the characters and plot is a bit jarring and throws a slight wrench into the fluidity of everything going on. But when the focus is where it is in this film, it can be forgiven.
However, what rubs me the wrong way a bit is the ending. Without getting too into spoilers (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know anything), there’s a particular scene that worked incredibly well. It was brutal and fit the crushing, depressing tone the whole film had and would’ve been a magnificent ending…but it goes on for 5 more minutes, giving us the ending we ultimately predicted would happen. That’s not to say the film doesn’t deserve the ending it had, but it would’ve been an absolute heart-stopper if it ended where I hoped it had.
But let’s get back to the good stuff, shall we? The scenery is absolutely stunning, the action is brief but visceral enough to feel intense, and Christian Bale was an absolute marvel.
The limited release for this was December 22nd, plus it didn’t have much marketing behind it at the time which is an absolute shame. Christian Bale puts on a Best Actor nomination-worthy performance. His portrayal of Captain Blocker is what really holds everything together. He goes from an angry, vindictive man to one who comes to understand and respect the people he once hated. Throughout he is bombarded with death and hardships which compound onto the traumas he’d already suffered. You can see him breaking apart inside despite not letting it come across to everyone else except the brief moments when he lets his emotions free. Those are the most powerful moments. If this movie had more public knowledge behind it or came out earlier, I genuinely believe Bale could’ve gotten enough votes to sneak into the Best Actor category for the Oscars.
On the other side, Wes Studi does a fantastic job as Yellow Hawk. An equally stoic man, he’s learned in his dying days to let go of his anger and hatred and focus on his family, care for others, and be as good a man as he can possibly be. The two nearly polar opposite performances contradict and compliment each other in the best way possible and it really shows in scenes when they interact with each other.
The rest of the cast do an equally stellar job. This really is a movie where the cast is given every opportunity to shine to their fullest.
At the end of the day, it’s an average-to-good Western that’s helped immensely by the ability of its cast and a deviation in focus from what we traditionally get. If you like being incredibly depressed for two hours, you’ll like this film.
Score: 7 out of 10
Image via Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures