There is a great deal to admire and appreciate in the melancholy new western Hostiles, directed by Scott Cooper. Owing a great deal to the work of John Ford before him, Cooper has made a visceral, raw western that explores the hostilities between the whites and the natives, but also the capacity for admiration between them.
It is so rare great westerns are made anymore, so when they are, we need to truly celebrate them. Blocker (Christian Bale) is a war-weary man in the army who has killed to many people, has seen too much death, and is ready for a quiet life and his pension. Gruff, taciturn, he has made his life as a killer and offers no apologies for it, ready to challenge anyone foolish enough to take him to task. Ordered to take a dying native Chief to his burial ground, he in none to pleased to be doing such a thing. When they encounter a woman we meet in the opening scenes, they know at once their lives are going to change.
She has been witness to her family slaughtered by natives, her husband and all three children including an infant, shot in her arms. On the precipice to slipping over into madness, Block takes her under his charge to protect her, knowing the band that attacked her home will be tracking them. Worried enough to band with the natives he is escorting home, this begins a slow thaw as he and the dying Chief (Wes Studi) begin to trust one another, to work together.
As they work their way to the old man’s lands they are attacked, but as often by white men as natives, and with greater cruelty. This serves to open the eyes of the party, Blocker in particular, who sees things from the natives point of view when he himself is attacked, sees his men killed by white men. It awakens a kindness in him that was always there unde the surface. Make no mistake, he is a ruthless killer when he needs to be, but he is also at a point in his life when he is finished with that. What he wants is right in front of him, his for the asking.
Bale is superb as a quiet though forceful man used to giving orders, widely respected, even feared who is as haunted by the death he has seen as anyone could be. What seems to eat at him like a corrosive acid are the deaths of his ow men, he feels a great responsibility for them. Under the rage is a good man, he is nothing but gentle and kind with the devastated woman he finds and cares for. Bale uses his expressive eyes for much of his performance, eyes that have seen too much pain.
Rosamund Pike, so frightening in Gone Girl (2014), is stunning as the poor soul who watches her entire family slaughtered. Her two pre-teen daughters are shot in the back inches from her, her infant is killed in her arms as she runs, how much can her mind bear? She is stronger than they imagine, becoming an integral part of the party in fighting those in their way. The actress digs deep, and gives a powerful performance that captures her grief, her rage, hate, but also her capacity for love and kindness. One of her final actions speaks to her humanity.
The great Ben Foster turns up in a small role as a dangerous soldier being taken to be executed, and CSI Miami’s Rory Cochran gives a fine performance as Blocker’s best friend. Wes Studi is proudly defiant as Yellow Hawk, a once fierce warrior now broken with cancer, knowing they must unite to stay alive.
The vast outdoors becomes a secondary character as we move from state to state, through rock, thick green forests, it is spectacular. Underneath it all is a superb score that gives the film its heartbeat. The film must be taken seriously as an Oscar contender, it is too good not to be.