Hostiles is a brutal and unflinching portrayal of the old west. It is told with a sort of melancholic indifference to the harrowing journey the characters take. There are scenes in this film that will punch you in the gut. Hostiles doles out savagery as a mere fact of life. Juxtaposing the sparse beauty of an untamed land with the bloody conflict that soaks the arid soil. Director Scott Cooper (Black Mass,Out of the Furnace) takes no delight in the violence. His theme is about bitter enemies coming to terms, while discovering humanity within themselves. This is heady, captivating cinema; which unfortunately suffers from an age old flaw. Hostiles is another whitewash from Hollywood. The Indian characters are merely pawns in their own story.
Set in 1892, Hostiles opens at an army base in New Mexico. Christian Bale stars as Captain Joseph Blocker, a hardened cavalry officer renowned for killing Indians. He is forced to escort a dying Cheyenne Chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their ancestral home in Montana. Blocker has a simmering hatred for these people, but is painfully aware of the dangers that lie ahead. He selects a band of trusted men to accompany them, including a black Buffalo Soldier (Jonathan Majors) and PTSD stricken sergeant (Rory Cochrane). The trip takes a surprising turn when they come across a burned farm. They discover a distraught widow (Rosamund Pike) alive in the ruins.
Hostiles is not an easy film to watch. The events depicted are merciless. The violence has a jarring, deeply personal feel. Cooper does not let his audience off the hook. He wants you to understand the cruelty and hardships the characters face. Kindness and decency are virtues, but they are under constant assault. The black and white world of right and wrong disappears under the heels of the wicked. It is bleak and uncompromising, but true in every regard. The trail north is perilous. Cooper does a fantastic job of illustrating this fact without resorting to gratuity.
The character exposition is brilliant for some, woefully underdeveloped for others. The captain, widow, and officers are thoroughly explored. We see them grow together as they face multiple obstacles and adversaries. The Cheyenne Indians are not treated with the same deft touch. Cooper has these characters as essentially quiet. They are physically present in almost every scene, but are usually spoken to or treated as set pieces to be moved. I fully understand that Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike are the primary characters, but the entire basis for the plot revolves around the Cheyenne. They needed to have a stronger voice here. This is a major detraction.
The final scene in Hostiles is quite divisive. I thought it was a logical conclusion, poetic and beautifully executed. Others have lambasted the ending as unexpected and uncharacteristic for the plot established. Cooper certainly leaves the audience with something to think about. From Entertainment Studios, Hostiles is a gripping western with good performances and direction. It skirts greatness, but never reaches its potential because of the whitewashing. I would love to see an uncut version of this film with more interaction from the Cheyenne.