By most measurements, Hostiles looks like an award-worthy prestige Western for an older crowd. It’s pretty, it’s long, it touches on the horrors inflicted by white people by focusing on the growth and heroics of a white dude, and it has a stellar cast including Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, and a better-than-normal Stephen Lang.
When trying to hit these prestigious notes, however, the film fails. Its attempt to make something of America’s atrocities toward Native Americans is rough, diminishing the great Wes Studi as a mostly passive prop in Christian Bale’s story. Rosamund Pike comes off a bit better as a woman traumatized by the massacre of her entire family, but for long stretches the film has no idea what to do with her. Perhaps most damning on just a watchability level, it appears as though every actor was instructed to speak from behind their (impressive) mustaches, rendered a fair amount of the dialogue incomprehensible.
Which is all a shame because when Hostiles sticks to pulp, it’s really quite good. Its general points about the long-term damage of endless violence are well-made. And the violence itself is effectively blunt and brutal, making this a Western worth recommending to genre fans despite the film’s bigger problems.
Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a soldier nearing retirement after a career slaughtering Native Americans. He finds himself charged with the task of escorting an equally legendary dealer of violence, Wes Studi’s Chief Yellow Hawk, to his homelands before the warrior succumbs to cancer. On the way, he and his crew confront the dangers of the land as well as their own guilt for past deeds.
Bale’s interesting in his role, playing strict and dignified almost, but not quite, to the point of caricature. There’s something appealingly stunted and broken about this man, and it’s refreshing to see a version of this character who gets a handful of crying scenes. Ben Foster shows up for an episode and plays exactly the role we expect from him by now. The best performance here belongs to the always-underrated Rory Cochrane, playing one of Bale’s old war buddies. There’s always been an uncanny naturalism to Cochrane that’s exciting to see. He doesn’t get near enough screen time but impresses in all his moments.
There’s a really good movie here, but it’s buried by too many attempts to be something it’s not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans. But as a decidedly violent Western about souls broken by a lifetime of inhuman acts, it offers an interesting examination of well-realized characters. Unfortunately that’s not enough for Hostiles, and it fails its ambitions as a result.