When Kevin Costner revived the Western genre 27 years ago with his epic “Dances with Wolves,” he also introduced a new element of realism to the genre. Director Scott Cooper is now the latest person to fuse it into his work. As a result, his noir-Western is definitely more than just a story about “Cowboys vs. Indians”.
In 1892, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) gets direct orders from the President to escort the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to his tribal land in Montana. The problem here is that Blocker is both extremely hostile towards Native Americans and has a history with the chief himself. This is because he is responsible for the death of several of Blocker’s friends and comrades. The group soon encounters Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose entire family has been killed by Comanches in the film’s gripping opening scene. Together, they continue on a dangerous mission where threats lurk in the environments and inside themselves.
Cooper, who also produced and wrote the script for “Hostiles” from an unpublished manuscript of the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, delivers a noir-Western that is ultra-realistic and violent. But, it is also flawed. The script fails to portray Native Americans with the nuances it gives to Caucasian characters. They are either ruthless killers or quiet leaders, nothing in between. And unlike Blocker or Rosalie, they have no backstory to explain their motivations and their own hostility. Because of this, they stay one-dimensional for the majority of the movie, merely being props.
That’s more than unfortunate. Because, otherwise the movie doesn’t shy away from controversies and the degree of realism is meticulous — even the people’s teeth are dirty — and after a week of horseback riding they look tattered and tired. The make-up artists and production designers leave no doubt about how hard life back then must have been. The film’s modern themes about racism as well as the effects of PTSD on soldiers and their redemption are perfectly reflected in this setting, and there’s hardly any character that is spared from trauma.
The actors do an outstanding job, in particular Pike. Her portrayal of a strong woman in a hostile environment is nuanced, driven by fear and strength. Christian Bale is amazing, as always, and most supporting actors get some good scenes to show their abilities as well.
Like in every Western, the cinematography is crucial. Director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, in his second collaboration with Cooper, made sure to capture beautiful panoramic landscapes and open prairies, as well as visual cues to the classic “The Searchers.” He captures the freedom of the New World, with all its possibilities and dangers, on film and makes it tangible, turning “Hostiles” into one of the most realistic Western movies of all time.
Cooper, an acclaimed actor-turned-director proves in his fourth movie that he can handle any genre. After the drama “Crazy Heart”, the thriller “Out of the Furnace” and the crime-bio “Black Mass”, he now takes on the Western with success. With little more thought toward the script, this could have been a modern masterpiece; for now, it is a really good noir-Western that makes the viewer pretty happy to be born over a hundred years later, in much easier times.
You will like “Hostiles” if you liked “3:10 to Yuma,” “Unforgiven,” “The Searchers,” “True Grit,” “Open Range,” or “Tombstone”.
Written and directed by Scott Cooper
With Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster
Cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi
Music by Max Richter
Edited by Tom Cross
133 min, rated R