Hostiles review: A fiercely satisfying western of the old school

There is something of ‘The Searchers’ in director Scott Cooper’s elegiac tale

'Hostiles' is a powerful, gritty western starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike and is directed by Scott Cooper.

Christian Bale: almost as gruff as Batman

Film Title: Hostiles

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi

Genre: Western

Running Time: 133 min

Fri, Dec 29, 2017, 05:00

   

It’s been such a long time since American cinema got guilty about its relationship with native peoples that, to produce a genuinely revisionist western on that topic, you would need to give the cowboys white hats and make the “Indians” ruthless savages again. (This would be a terrible idea, incidentally.)

There is just a hint that we’re going there in the terrific opening sequence of this grim epic from the director of Crazy Heart and Black Mass. Rosamund Pike, as homesteader Rosalie Quaid, flees with her baby when Comanche attack. Her husband is killed defending the house. Both older children are shot as they make for a safe place. Some time later, Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a bitter army captain, finds her huddled in the charred remains of her home. Blocker has been ordered to take chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), an old enemy now ill with cancer, back to his tribe’s old hunting grounds.

If you’re already thinking of The Searchers, then be assured that the film-makers are surely thinking the same. Like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in that film, Blocker has developed an untouchable distaste for all things Comanche. He risks court martial by refusing to escort Yellow Hawk, but comes round when reminded that he would lose his pension. Like Ethan, he combines distrust with an unparalleled knowledge of Comanche lore, speaking the language with apparent fluency. If there is anybody watching who doesn’t think that an accommodation will eventually be reached, then they must never have seen a film before.

The eventual settlement is a little bit on the nose. Things are said that would better have been left unsaid. The picture also suffers from the old-school problem of depicting Native Americans as either wise advisers or homicidal menaces. No middle ground is discovered.

Those complaints noted, Hostiles still stands as a fiercely satisfying trail movie of the old school. Wes Studi may be stuck with that noble sage role, but, his face more statuesque than ever, he works every emotion from the old man’s final odyssey. He and Bale – almost as gruff as Batman – play gently off each other’s hard carapaces to satisfying effect. Ubiquitous youngster Timothée Chalamet and old hand Peter Mullan make the most of relatively small roles. But the standout performance comes from Pike. Convincingly American, the English actor edges her character from scooped-out despair to a kind of weary acceptance. She can sit well on a horse and can brandish a Winchester effectively. It’s a shame there aren’t more oaters around to make use of those skills.

Most contemporary westerns have an elegiac flavour (after all, the era was over as soon as it had begun) and Hostiles is happy to entertain those instincts. The great Max Richter spins a sad sweeping score across Masanobu Takayanagi’s sombre cinematography. The men seem sickened by the inevitable succession of murders and betrayals. The few woman struggle to assert any control.

The ultimate impression is of a rough society hacked from unwilling ground by violence in search of capital. Yet there is some hope in a lovely, extended final shot. A good way to finish off the cinematic year.