Scott Cooper’s sprawling epic, Hostiles is full of strong character moments and very little else.
One of the greatest cinematic experiences I had as a teenager was when my dad took me to see the Academy Award – winning Dances with Wolves. I was at that age where I didn’t want to see an epic; I wanted to see explosions and special effects. What I realized as that film opened up, was the great sacrifice men and women were willing to make as this nation expanded westward. It was with this same sense of teenaged excitement that I anticipated Scott Cooper’s Hostiles.
In Mr. Cooper’s story, Christian Bale plays the war – wary Captain Blocker, a man on the verge of retiring from service. For his final mission, he agrees to escort Chief Yellow Hawk, a dying Cheyenne war chief played by Wes Studi and his family to their home land.
Mr. Bale’s approach to the character puts his motives front and center and we are never given an opportunity to question his hatred. What was interesting about the approach was in the way he and Mr. Cooper layered in post-traumatic stress. It made the character feel more authentic, especially as he engaged with other characters in the film.
As the escort makes its way across the mountainous region between New Mexico and Wyoming, Captain Blocker encounters a widowed Rosalie Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike. Ms. Quaid’s progression is very much the opposite of Blocker’s. Mr. Cooper infused her character with an opposing post-traumatic stress to Blocker’s own experience, offering her a strength built out of pent up rage. It was something that was interesting to watch unfold on the screen.
In the end, they were forced to become hostiles in a foreign land through others actions.
Of itself, this might make for a boring drama. What makes it interesting is the addition of Chief Yellow Hawk. His performance was that of a quiescent man; someone who knew his time on this mortal earth was coming to an end. He had made peace with this fact. Yet, his own self-worth would not allow his family, Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), to be harmed. Neither Captain Blocker nor Yellow Hawk trusted one another, but they knew they needed each other to survive the trip.
Mr. Cooper infuses a significant amount of emotion into his story and his characters. His use of the camera, especially light, conveys much more than the dialog of each character can. The slowly unwinding bonds of distrust melt away throughout the course of the film, leaving the story wanting for more drama and action.
And, that’s the trouble with this story. Where each character fills the requisite nature of a “hostile,” there is a need to introduce a new scenario which carries the escort’s journey from the beginning of the film through to its end. There is one major subplot which, on paper probably made absolute sense, but its execution is marred because of where it falls within the story; it isn’t needed to explain Captain Blocker’s motives, and if anything it diminishes his own progression as a character.
The supporting cast is used to nuance our experience. Rory Cochrane as Master Sgt. Metz was probably the best supporting character of the film, as someone who held on to his sanity by the thinnest of strings. Stephen Lang as Col. Biggs plays his character with the same gusto as we got when he played Col. Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar. Though he is onscreen for a few minutes, he chews up every frame like it was his last. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Bill Camp plays Jeremiah Wilks a journalist, who knew enough about Captain Blocker to push his buttons, goading him into taking the mission. Their interaction doesn’t serve a great deal of purpose other than reinforcing the captain’s need to take the mission, something that Col. Biggs does very well on his own. I liked Mr. Camp’s performance, even if it felt very similar to the Timmons character that Robert Pastorelli played in Dances with Wolves.
Unlike Dances with Wolves, I found Hostiles to be very icy towards the Native American experience. If this was by intention, it renders our main character’s resolutions mute. For all the nuances that the story builds, layering emotions and trauma, they don’t pay off very well.
Audiences should find quite a bit to like in this film. The story is serviceable, full of strong, if uneven performances. This is not the fault of the performers, but rather the way the story makes use of them.
Now in theaters, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles should be respected for what it tries to say, even if the end result is marred by its intentions. My teenaged excitement has been irrevocably extinguished.
Expanding this weekend, and opening wide January 19th, Hostiles is rated R by the MPAA.