The themes, iconography, stories and imagery of the Western rarely stay out of the mainstream for very long, right now “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the most talked about and anticipated films of the year (already) and despite its contemporary setting it is, very clearly, a Western. “Hostiles” though is Western, Western. A period piece that features a frontier family, soldiers of the Union, Native Americans and enough blood, Old Testament rage and revenge/redemption to make even John Ford nod approvingly from his Celestial director’s chair.
It is 1892 and Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has been tasked with transporting dying Native American chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from his prison in a Union Army fort to his tribal lands in Montana. Blocker is less than happy about his assignment, he views all of the indigenous peoples as hostiles and has lost many men in violent struggles against them. But Blocker is no innocent in these struggles, his is a bloody, violent and wicked past. As Blocker leads his small detail to their destination they stumble upon Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) clutching her dead infant in her arms inside the charred remains of her home, her husband and two older daughters dead beside her, victims of a brutal Comanche attack. The group take Quaid with them and the scene is set for an epic piece of storytelling.
Director Scott Cooper has already tackled another bloody chapter in American history with his look at the life of James “Whitey” Bulger in the gangster film “Black Mass”. Here though the intimacy of city life is exchanged for the wide open spaces of the American frontiers. Vast, desolate, brutal landscapes where danger lurks behind every rock and tree. In “Hostiles” the enemy is everywhere; fellow soldiers, friends, hunters, warriors and the government. The violence starts early and never stops. It is a terrifying tale and one that works as well as it does because of the performances of the leads. Bale is full of brooding and intensity, his Captain Blocker has done terrible things in doing his duty and the threat of further terrible things is only ever just beneath the surface. Pike, as Quaid, is mesmerising as a woman who has lost almost everything but who refuses to lose her own dignity and goodness, she is the moral heart of the story. The other standout performance is that of Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk, he is full of grace and possessed of a stillness that informs his every word and movement.
“Hostiles” is a film that deals with grand themes (love, loss, revenge, hate, race and redemption) and deals with them on a grand stage but that manages to make it all feel very intimate and relevant. It’s a terrific film and one that will, no doubt, be in receipt of many nominations come awards season; Cooper for director, Bale for best actor, Pike as best actress are all likely but if West Studi doesn’t receive recognition for his performance the game, as we used to say when I was a little boy, is a bogey.