Bale, Pike, Studi Make Uncomfortable HOSTILES An Instant Classic

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HOSTILES opens everywhere Jan 26, 2017.

Hostiles, the new film by Scott Cooper, is not what the trailers I saw would lead you to believe. The clips make it look like it's an action-packed Tombstone-style romp. It is not. It's a thinking person's western, a parable about hate, xenophobia, and ultimately acceptance. It's about broken people just trying to survive. Hostiles (incidentally a terrible name for this film, as while there are indeed many hostiles in it, it’s not about them) is not an easy film to watch, but it's an emotional and gripping film that will have you dwelling on it for days afterward.

Christian Bale stars as Union Army Captain Joe Blocker. He's spent his entire career waging war against the Native Americans. He's just about to retire from Army life when he receives orders from Washington: he is to escort Yellow Hawk, a war chief of the Cheyenne tribe played by the ageless Cherokee actor Wes Studi, from his New Mexico prison to his ancestral lands in Montana. The chief is dying of cancer. The government is granting his family a dying request. Capt. Blocker would rather put a dozen bullets in his old adversary, but such is life in the military. Joe handpicks his escort detail and their journey begins. The group soon encounters Rosalie Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, who just survived a Comanche raid on homestead. This raid was actually the first scene of the movie and is almost the western equivalent of the Normandy landing that launches Saving Private Ryan. I'm not usually shocked by violence but this scene had me sinking deep into my seat, flinching and whispering "Oh my..." Other encounters along the way go similarly poorly, and the escort detail loses soldiers at a steady clip. By the time they reach Montana, even Yellow Hawk's family has suffered heavy casualties. 

Superbly acted, especially Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale, Hostiles is a deep study of humanity's capacity for hate, compassion and understanding. It reminded me of a science fiction classic that I feel is often underrated: Enemy Mine. In that film, an Earthling (Dennis Quaid) and a member of an alien race that Earth is at war with (Lou Gossett Jr.) are marooned on a planet and have to rely on each other to survive. As the story advances, the two learn to understand and respect each other. The same sort of thing is prevalent in Hostiles, where Joe and Yellow Hawk learn more about each other and maybe are never friends but come away with more understanding and respect for each other. To a lesser agree the same goes for Ms. Quaid and the Cheyenne as she struggles to hold on to her sanity amidst the grief another tribe has caused her. 

At about two and a half hours, some might find the slower pace punctuated by extreme and exhilarating shootouts a tag too long, but I think it was just about right. One of the hardest things to do in a movie is compress time. The two states are over 1,000 miles apart. To walk there would take roughly 15 days! I reckon going by horse would be only a little faster, to say nothing of the hardships of dealing with the landscape and weather plus attacks from bandits and tribes. I wish there had been more direct conversation between Blocker and Yellow Hawk, because clearly there would have been plenty of time for it. But the old chief's actions and his family's kindness are enough to move Blocker away from his "all Indians are enemy savages" mentality. 

Bale's nuanced performance is arresting, Pike's journey is heartwrenching, and it's always good to see Wes Studi in anything. Hostiles is a very interesting film that is well worth your time, but be prepared for two-plus hours of uncomfortable movie watching as Scott Cooper's direction makes sure that every hardship the characters face hits home with the audience. 

Grade: 
4.5 / 5.0