“Hostiles,” the new Christian Bale drama, is a period piece with a potent message for today. With a nod to the John Wayne classic “The Searchers,” it’s a sombre tale of a man who must confront his deeply held racism.
Set in 1892, Bale plays Joseph J. Blocker, a U.S. Army captain approaching retirement; soul darkened by a career spent warring with indigenous peoples. He’s lost many of his men at the hands of his enemy, seen his people butchered and scalped. In return he turned battlegrounds into killing fields soaked in blood.
Under orders he reluctantly does one last official job before riding off into the sunset. His commanding officer (Stephen Lang) gives him a choice, escort an old enemy, Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) now dying of cancer, from an remote Army gaol in New Mexico to the Chief’s home in the grasslands of Montana or face a court martial. Putting together a crew of his most trusted men, including his right hand man Sergeant Tommy Metz (Rory Cochrane), he begins the long, dangerous trek. A day or so in the come across Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was slaughter right in front of her.
The physical journey is ripe with danger—they are ambushed by Comanche and must drop off a dangerous prisoner (Ben Foster) along the way—but the metaphysical journey is more interesting. As the days pass Blocker rediscovers his humanity; the man he was before he allowed hate to overwhelm.
Writer, director Scott Cooper’s film drips with gravitas. It is a serious minded look at the bigotry and brutality that fuelled the U.S. Army dealings with the frontier tribes while making room for Blocker’s redemptive arc. But for as beautiful as the movie is, it never feels authentic. Sure you can almost smell the campfires, blood and sweat. Cooper’s details are evocative of a time and place, it’s the relationships between the characters that don’t ring true. The anti-racism message is a powerful and important one but turned into a cliché in its execution. Underdeveloped indigenous characters, all stoicism and nobility, seem to exist only to aid Blocker’s attitude change, which makes the movie feel lopsided, tilted toward Blocker and his band of white saviours.
I think the movie mostly has its heart in the right place in terms of promoting tolerance but the reconciliation portrayed here feels off kilter. (SPOILER ALERT) By the time the end credits roll on this ponderous story, the white viewpoint of the storytelling is made all too clear in a conclusion that sees the two above the title stars come to the rescue of a young indigenous character.
“Hostiles” is a beautifully turned out film. Cooper fills each frame of this deliberately paced movie with a kind of bleak beauty. But with the elegance of the filmmaking comes frustration at the story’s missteps. Bale digs deep, grappling with the anguish and regret that has scarred Blocker’s soul but his transformation doesn’t seem real, or possible.