Under the Oscar Radar: “Hostiles”

by Rita Cook on January 25, 2018 in Film,
Rosamund Pike Christian Bales

Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike • Rated R for strong violence and language

You won’t be able to walk away.

Not after you’ve been sucked in by the emotionally riveting opening of “Hostiles.” A long opening scene that says much with almost no words, gearing the audience up for what’s to come. Successful at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the brutal opening—portraying a young family massacred by Indians on the plains of the United States—is just the beginning of the long journey taken by the main characters. The first character is the young widow Rosalee Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, who is the sole surviving member of her family. For me, the most touching line of the movie is spoken by Pike’s character later in the film: “Sometimes I envy the finality of death, the certainty.”

Rosamund Pike and Tanaya Beatty in “Hostiles.” Photo by Lorey Sebastian – © 2017 – Yellow Hawk, Inc.

Set in 1892, “Hostiles” is the story of an Army captain who has made a big name for himself. Captain Joseph J Blocker, played by Christian Bale, finds himself in a dilemma after a dark career on the American frontier. He’s told by his superiors that his last hurrah will be to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief, played by Wes Studi, and his family back to tribal lands in Montana.

The journey begins at an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico and Blocker is given the aid of some of his best men. It is a few days later that Blocker finds the grieving Pike, who then accompanies the group on the harrowing trip that includes a brutal landscape, warring Comanche and other personal and environmental obstacles that allow both her and Blocker to commence their dark night of the souls.

Directed and written by Scott Cooper, his turn behind the camera just keeps getting better as many will remember his work from “Crazy Heart” and “Black Mass.” Cooper’s “Hostiles” reminds us very quickly that life in the American frontier was not the eloquent romanticized experience many want to recall, but instead a rugged landscape with the real players barely hanging on each day. “Hostiles” is based on an unpublished manuscript by Donald E Stewart with an opening that sets the tone for the film: “The essential American soul is hard, isolated, stoic, and a killer.”

The strongest message in the film is that while Blocker at first refused and wrestled with his soul before undertaking the journey from New Mexico to Montana, he finally takes on the task because of his fierce integrity. During his career he has learned to hate—and capture—what he considered the most brutal savages. When he is called on to return Chief Yellow Hawk home, even though the man has always been his rival, we learn that life is not always what we think it might be. As the journey ensues, Blocker, the young widow and the chief’s family find a comfort in keeping each other alive; looking at the differences between each other, but more importantly the similarities.

Wes Studi in Hostiles. Photo by Lorey Sebastian – © 2017 – Yellow Hawk, Inc.

The scenes with Bale and Pike are well played and charged with a bit of underlying sexual tension. In the end the story comes full circle as the two ride off into the sunset along with the one surviving member of the Chief’s family.

A standout is also found with the work of Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. In a film such as this the landscape is also a main character and Takavanagi captures this part of the film well, with the audience feeling as much as seeing it through the big screen.

It will be said, and rightly so that “Hostiles” is another look at the conscience of the white man after the brutal treatment of the Native Americans. While the film might not play out as it would have if the audience were actually viewing the incidents in real time, “Hostiles” does play out true in that the characters are asked to grapple with their own ideas of heroics and discover an integrity that each man must consider before his final days.

Rita Cook is President of the North Texas Film Critics Association
Cover: Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike in “Hostiles.” Photo by Lorey Sebastian – © 2017 – Yellow Hawk, Inc.