HOSTILES review by Mark Walters – Scott Cooper directs Christian Bale in a gritty western

HOSTILES review by Mark Walters – Scott Cooper directs Christian Bale in a gritty western

Christian Bale’s last collaboration with writer/director Scott Cooper was 2013’s OUT OF THE FURNACE, which met with mixed critical acclaim for its great performances, but was such a downer of a film which could explain why it was never all that widely seen. I recall the phenomenal acting side of it, particularly Woody Harrelson and Christian Bale in the film, and there’s one scene with Bale and Zoe Saldana on a bridge that will tear even the most hardened heart to pieces. Cooper’s films are typically darker fare, with the one possible exception of CRAZY HEART with Jeff Bridges, which was his directorial debut. His latest is HOSTILES, a bleak and at times somewhat depressing Western that shows the ugliest side of the late 1800s, but also feels rather honest and somewhat timely in matters of racism and even PTSD. This is not your traditional Western by any measure, almost more of a war film with a Western setting, and a film that very much should be seen… especially in a day and age where certain parts of our history are being forgotten or in some cases even covered up.

The story opens on a farmhouse in New Mexico where the Quaid family resides in peace. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) home schools her two young girls while taking care of her new baby boy, as her husband tends to the farm. When a group of Comanche Indians show up to take their horses, things violently fall apart in an instant. Rosalie manages to escape, but her life is destroyed. Cut to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) bringing a captured Indian family to his base to be jailed, where he receives an unwelcome assignment from Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang). By order of President Harrison, Blocker is tasked with escorting cancer-stricken Cheyenne Indian Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their home in Valley of the Bears, Montana… this is meant to be a peaceful gesture, knowing Yellow Hawk is near death. Joe explains how the Chief was a butcher, responsible for the deaths of many of his friends, and is incensed at the request, but is told he has no choice and it must be done. So he rounds up a team of soldiers including Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) and Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), and they hit the road with their prisoners in tow. On the way, they find Rosalie, and take her in as part of their journey. She is not comfortable riding side by side with Indians, as in her eyes they might as well be the same folks who attacked her family. As the journey continues, during a rest stop in a familiar town, Blocker is asked by a Lt. Colonel acquaintance if he could also take a prisoner being held there back to the base he deserted (which is on the way), explaining this man committed horrific crimes. Joe agrees, not knowing that prisoner is in fact a former friend from the battlefield, one Sgt. Charles Wills (Ben Foster). One begins to wonder if Blocker’s task could become any more complicated before he reaches his final destination.

As a fan of Westerns, I always respect when filmmakers show the uglier side of that era, not holding back on just how rough things were on a regular basis. What makes HOSTILES such an interesting film is you never know who could die and when. This is a movie that isn’t afraid to kill off what appears to be major characters very suddenly, and even women and children aren’t safe from a bullet. While it is certainly violent, it’s never excessive or offensive in that regard, rather realistic and honest. Even the bad guys can meet an untimely end without substantial build up. Scott Cooper seems to get that keeping the narrative non-traditional while still honoring the era is the smart way to go when delivering a Western these days. He even captures the beauty and grandeur of the New Mexico desert without showing us the same old vistas every Hollywood Western is so fond of. Some people find Cooper’s work to be a bit talky, and I can understand that point of view, but his dialogue is usually so rich and smart that I don’t care if it’s a bit long-winded. Some of the best moments in this film are random bits of chatter that feel sincere and expected based on the situation. There’s a great scene where Rory Cochrane is talking to Christian Bale about how many years of his life he’s given to the service, just showing his exhaustion with it all, and another wonderful moment where Jesse Plemons is processing his first time to kill a man and what it’s making him feel. These scenes easily could have been cut out, but they add to the power of the story and really make these characters feel real.

Christian Bale plays Blocker as a broken man trying so hard to keep it together. As time passes, he sees not only what he has allowed himself to become, but the importance of what he needs to be. It’s a sort of spiritual and emotional journey of a man who has experienced nightmarish horrors, but knows he has a duty… not just a duty to his superiors, but a duty to those who rely on him, like Rosalie. It’s a great showcase for Bale to play his tortured emotions in powerful ways, sometimes doing something as simple as choking back tears while kneeling before a fallen friend. It’s one of the best roles the actor has had to date, which is saying a lot, and it doesn’t hurt that he literally looks here like a man you’d see in one of those old Western photos in Time Life books. Rosamund Pike has the challenging role of the mentally destroyed victim of Comanche violence, which wrecks her humanity but also gives her reason to change and find strength within her unexpected journey alongside the troops. Wes Studi is perfectly cast as Yellow Hawk, the dying but dignified Indian Chief who in his final days knows too well the horrors of war. I was very happy to see the great Rory Cochrane in a sizable role as Blocker’s trusted friend, who has had his fill of the soldier’s life, and is starting to lose his ability to cope with yet another assignment. Cochrane is one of those actors who is always phenomenal, but is sadly not used very frequently, especially in bigger movies. He is excellent here, and incorporates a sort of PTSD subplot to his role that really feels sincere and necessary in this story. The rest of the cast is great, a nice mix with competent performers like Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Jonathan Majors, and the always powerful Ben Foster. The only face that feels miscast is a small role featuring Scott Wilson, who many will remember as Hershel from THE WALKING DEAD… I adore Wilson, but Hershel was such a likable and memorable character, it’s kind of distracting and unfortunate to see him playing a jerk, even if it is practically a cameo.

HOSTILES is one of the better Westerns to come out of Hollywood in recent years, if only for its honesty and blunt execution. This is not a flashy or action-packed film, and probably not what you’d consider a big audience pleaser, but I was rather impressed with how much is resonated with things we’re still talking about today. I guess you could call it a timely period piece, and a reminder of how things used to be in a less civilized society. Whether it means to or not, this feels important and valuable, especially in an age filled with sequels, reboots and comic book movies every other weekend. It’s also interesting that the production company behind this film is Entertainment Studios, headed by comedian Byron Allen. You may know Allen from his late night TV judge shows and entertainment interviews, many of which felt a little low budget in quality, but his company is fast becoming a name to know thanks to last year’s surprise hit 47 METERS DOWN and now this, and his next produced film is the controversial Ted Kennedy story CHAPPAQUIDDICK. If he keeps this up, he may become a powerhouse movie producer to be reckoned with. As for Cooper, who wrote and directed HOSTILES, he continues to impress as a filmmaker, even if his movies aren’t made to be blockbusters. I hope there’s enough folks in Tinseltown that recognize his strengths to where they will keep allowing him to do what he does, as I’m sure he’s still got plenty of stories to tell. I’ll say this right now – you may not like this movie for what it is, but you absolutely should respect it for the narrative it delivers.

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.