Over the last decade or so writer-director Scott Cooper has amassed an impressive filmography of stories that are so bleakly human as to almost be horror films (or more precisely, horrific dramas). It should come as no surprise that his next announced film, Antlers, is a more traditional horror tale. Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, and Black Mass all portray their characters as beyond flawed, often dangerous. They border on beyond redeemable, to the point where they were difficult films to access because there were so few—if any—likable characters whose shoes we need to step into in order to breach the material. Cooper’s finest work to date is his latest, Hostiles, and it also fits into this mold, with the biggest difference being that at least one character desperately wants to be a better man before the rapidly approaching specter of death comes calling.
Based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart and set in 1892, Hostiles tells the story of notorious Army captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who is called up to effectively retire his career after one final job of escorting dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family (including sons and daughters played by Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, and Adam Beach) back to their homeland through dangerous portions of the country.
Along the way, they encounter the remains of a white family’s massacre at the hands of a group of Native Americans, leaving only the traumatized wife/mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) as a survivor. Blocker decides to take her along, and what follows is something of an odyssey through the changing American landscape and the shifting attitudes of a soldier considered one of the finest killers of Native Americans in the land.
Cooper has no qualms about making it clear that Blocker is a trained killer, and he would like nothing more than to slit the throat and take the scalp of the man he’s escorting (a known killer of white men), but over the course of their eventful journey together, a sort of understanding that borders on mutual respect emerges. But that road is hard, not well traveled and it’s littered with the corpses of those who travel alongside them. There are few actors as skilled as both Bale and Studi are who could play these roles, alternating between stoic dignity and barely contained rage.
Hostiles doesn’t just refer to the perceived threat of the Native population of America at the time; it also captures the attitudes, particularly among soldiers, toward that population. In every war, soldiers need an enemy, and for decades that enemy was Indians. The film is about the slow and painful process of decompression, of no longer thinking of your sworn enemy as the enemy any more. Some can’t switch it off, but Blocker is desperately trying, as if he knows he can’t move onto whatever the next phase in his life may be with that amount of uncut hatred in his heart.
Cooper populates the dozens of supporting roles with recognizable faces, including the likes of Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons (also in this week’s The Post), Ben Foster, Peter Mullan, and busy newcomer Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird). Each of these men comes into Blocker’s world to either reinforce his new path or discourage him from leaving his hatred too far from his reach. It’s a beautifully illustrated struggle, and Bale gives one of his best performances in recent memory in the hands of the writer-director that supplied him with one of his other great, unsung roles in Out of the Furnace.
Some have referred to Hostiles as a Western, and if that gets you to watch it, fine. Truth be told, it acts best as an anti-Western, reversing the roles of the traditional good guys and bad guys, making the white-gloved Army men look like savages. It’s a jarring, sometimes brutally violent exercise in storytelling, but it’s also a tremendous personal journey—a “Heart of Darkness”-style epic that makes no promises about who, if anyone, makes it all the way home. The movie cracked my 50 best features of 2017, and for very good reason.
The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the AMC River East 21, with a wider release scheduled for January 12.