Hostiles: A Slow, Contemplative Western
Review by Aaron Haughton
Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Get Low, Out of the Furnace) follows up 2015's Black Mass with Hostiles, a molasses slow, Cormac McCarthy bleak and brutal western. The film feels like a mashing of John Ford and Clint Eastwood directed westerns with a more contemplative look at the mistreat of American Indians than we usually see depicted within the genre. You could say it's an homage to the golden era of westerns that simultaneously challenges its typical tropes of cowboys v.s. Indians. In this film, the hostiles are everyone and everything, which paints a very dour picture of the old west, but Cooper still manages to find a bit hope along the way, too.
Set in 1892, Hostiles tells the story of a legendary Army Captain (Christian Bale), who after stern resistance, reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. Making the harrowing and perilous journey from Fort Berringer, an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico, to the grasslands of Montana, the former rivals encounter a young widow (Rosamund Pike), whose family was murdered on the plains. Together, they must join forces to overcome the punishing landscape, hostile Comanche and vicious outliers that they encounter along the way.
Cooper sets the tone immediately in the opening scene where we see Rosamund Pikes's family brutally slaughtered by Indians. The scene is relentlessly rendered, palpably tense, and grabs you instantly; however, the rest of the picture never managed to brush the caliber of excellence seen in its opening scene. Once the introductory scene concludes, the film slows to a murmur and only flutters with tension or action minutely from here on out.
This is a film that really takes its time, but isn't any better for it. When Bale's convoy of calvary men crosses paths with Pike, the pacing comes to a complete standstill and stays that way for what feels like 20 minutes. Now, I generally appreciate when a filmmaker takes their time crafting and building the story; however, in the case of Hostiles, there were several scenes that didn't really serve a higher purpose to the overall narrative. If this were a first draft edit, it would be a fairly solid one, but as a final cut, it has too many sequences that feel bloated and drawn out, which should've be trimmed down or cut out completely. As I exited the theater, I heard several people using words like "slow" and "boring," and phrases like "I almost fell asleep a few times" or "It lost me for awhile," and I was right there with them.
Unfortunately, length and pacing weren't the only issues with the film either. There were times when some of the editing felt shoddy and didn't quite mesh with the way the rest of the film was laid out, like Bale's lament in the desert and the short sequence where the convoy of horses cross the river. The character arcs for both Pike and Bale weren't gradual enough and come across like a flip of a light switch, and the Native Americans are thinly drawn, as they so often are. The Indian characters aren't caricatures, per se, but they're also not given much to do either, particularly Studi, and they seem almost like an afterthought in a film that's more or less about them and their mistreatment.
That said, there are some redeemable qualities to this unfalteringly dismal film. For starters, the cinematography is gorgeously photographed, and the tranquil beauty of the exteriors directly contrast with the gloomy mood and bleak narrative in fairly interesting ways. We get a lot of wide exteriors that swallow our characters up in the scenery and remind us how small they are in comparison to the dangers that lie literally everywhere. It's clear that the westerns of John Ford, specifically The Searchers and Stagecoach, heavily influenced the visual aesthetic of the film. This is apparent in everything from the wide exteriors to the many instances of the classic door shot. Hostiles leans, however, a little too excessively on the visuals of the other westerns that came before it, that it forgets to show us anything new, which was kind of a let down.
The film's saving grace is its performances. Bale and Pike are pretty terrific, and they both carry the bulk of the film's weight; however, the supporting cast, consisting of Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Timothée Chalamet and Jesse Plemons, help to make the film's misery more tolerable. Foster and Cochrane are the two supporting characters that do the most for the film, as they are essentially two different representations of the outcome that awaits Bale if he doesn't change his ways.
The film's ending can be seen from miles away, but what cannot be easily spotted is the shred of hope Cooper manages to find for ending. It felt a little left field for me, but it didn't rub me the wrong way either. Frankly, I was just glad it was over.
Overall, it's not a bad film, but it's not a great one either. As far as westerns go, Hostiles doesn't do enough to elevate itself from the other westerns out there, and frankly, there are far better westerns that have come out in years past, The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are two that instantly spring to mind. The reason that many people may be hyped over this film, sadly, is because it just might be the best western we've gotten in a very long time. If anything, it gives me hope that I'll one day get that film adaptation of Blood Meridian, which I still have my fingers crossed for.
Rating: 3 John Ford door shots outta 5.
What did you think of the film? Did it keep you thoroughly engaged? Was it too bleak? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!