Westerns are dead. I say that statement in a tone of grief and bleakness, the same tone used by Scott Cooper throughout his one hundred and thirty-four-minute journey of cruel poignancy in “Hostiles.” Cooper continues his trend of dissecting the philosophies and structural aspects of despair. The story centers around that of a group of Union soldiers (post-civil war) being led by a sinful and grim Captain whose now been given the responsibility to transport an infamous and cancer-ridden Native Chief back to his homeland to allow him to pass away in peace. The story comes on the heels of a period that involved the savaging of the white man in brutal fashions and an equivocal and sometimes worsened response by the white man to the native people, and those ideals are given time to be discussed but not near enough time to be understood and digested.
“Hostiles” is a grim tale that is not for the faint of heart. Cooper holds back no punches and its all showcased in an opening scene that recalls that of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” An outskirt settlement that is home to a family of five finds themselves under attack from a group of sinister Comanches who make quick work of the mother’s (Rosamund Pike), courageous husband. Striking him down with two arrows and then ravaging his body by removing a part of his scalp in a grotesquely vivid image.
The mother (Rosamund Pike) and her two daughters attempt to escape the Comanches’ reach by evading to the forest, but the bullets fired are able to find an unforgettable place to rest. The daughters soon fall to the ground and the baby being carried by the woman (Rosamund Pike) is murdered in an attempt by the mother (Rosamund Pike) to help her motionless daughters. The mother, who's now a widow and grieving mother, eludes to the forest and hides away until the barbarous “Hostiles” take their leave.
This bleak introduction sets the gauge of intensity that will become the norm for the plot’s tone. The story continues to showcase punches of pure fear and horror that tends to me dubbing this film as a horror film at its heart as it never depicts the action in a bombastic or heroic fashion, but instead, Cooper produces these scenes as moments of death in the most literal and poignant sense of the word. This style structures a story that is harkening back to the style of the revitalizing westerns from the late nineties like “Unforgiven.” Instead of showcasing these white men as courageous gunslingers, the characters are given the essence of torn mortality due to the graves that they have dug. “Hostiles” replicates that same tone of character in the protagonist, Captain Joseph J. Blocker. (Christian Bale)
Capt. Blocker (Christian Bale) is a growingly tortured individual. He begins the story as a man who welcomes his demons because of his belief in biblical vengeance. He’s a man that sees the world as a land of betrayal and bloodshed, and when you know the time of history he finds himself in, it's hard to disagree with him, at least entirely. The more death he is apart of and the more death he is responsible for, the more he begins to question his morality and whether it has become extinguished or merely reduced to fragments. We’ve seen the skeleton of this character arc before, and we saw it again earlier this year in “Logan.” The difference being that “Logan” unintentionally attached years worth of resonation for a character whose pain has slowly become the focus of his character over time. “Hostiles” never allows me time to gain an appreciation for Capt. Blocker (Christian Bale), the emotions and performance are noticeably present, but the lack of time given in providing depth to his character acts as a gate that keeps from trespassing passed the point of surface level resonation to that of an engulfing character study.
The same point made above can be replicated for that of Rosaline Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the mother I mentioned above. A woman who shares a significant emotional growth like that of her male counterpart, but is never given enough time to allow that arch to become tangible enough for me. But, how can two performances not be given enough time when one of my flaws is that of overextended runtime? Well, that's simply because the runtime suffers not from minutes on a clock but a lack of focus given to the characters. Cooper attempts to provide an emotional journey through the themes of the white man’s sins against the natives, the brutality of the natives’ most extreme groups, the treachery of the western frontier, and the politics behind it all. Cooper overloads his plate with these subject of complexity, but they act oppositely of his intentions by muddying the water of this beautifully constructed land of the old west.
The moving pictures of the film are captured with sheer immaculacy by that of Masanobu Takayanagi. The long enveloping wide shots are both vividly engulfing and poignantly constructed, but the story skimmers blemish over their memorability. The story is not bad, but its faltered in ways that ruin every moment of emotion for myself. “Hostiles” acts as a film that attempts to become something more than it should be, the character arcs are enough to provide a semblance of the themes that Cooper tends to overanalyze throughout his screenplay. If he had allowed his characters to steal the screen and never introduce outer themes that are not shared by the characters, he might have been more successful in producing a western that never harkens back to the roots of its genre, but rather the desolation of its future. It’s favoring the stylization of ‘The Revenant,” an impeccably constructed film with so much technical superiority to be found, but a story that is unable to make all of those efforts worth it all.
“Hostiles” is a film of complication for myself in a lot of ways. It’s hard to say anything is necessarily at fault for the film's lack of resonation with myself other than the screenplay by that of Scott Cooper. It’s not a bad screenplay, but it's a screenplay that is fabricated with the potential of greatness but begins to overcomplicate itself to no end. The emotions were palpable at times and out of reach at others, which is a trait you never want a part of your screenplay because it fabricates unevenness. The performances are outstanding, the filmmaking is sensational, and the story has moments of grandeur and bleak envelopment. But, the lack of connectivity between it all is what keeps “Hostiles” from breaking the continuing trend of forgettability for the Western genre.
Westerns are dead, at least in the sense of making memorable stories. They still manifest moments of pure greatness, but the continued lack of nuance continues to keep it from becoming revived. For now, sprinkles of life will be the only thing we receive with films like “Hell or High Water” and buckets of flawed beauty will overtake a genre in dire need of nuance. “Hostiles” has the skeleton of a great western, but the dearth of meat to be found is what tends to “Hostiles” being a masterfully sculptured dose of forgettability.