This isn’t your backyard childhood game of cowboys and Indians, nor is it a stereotypical oater in which the heroes fight off attacks from savages.
Rather, Hostiles offers a vivid depiction of post-Civil War frontier justice that focuses more on inner conflicts than elaborate battles. More of a drama than a traditional Western, its character-driven approach provides depth and insight to a message about tolerance and unity that could have been trite and heavy-handed.
The film begins in New Mexico in the late 19th century, when Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is an army captain on the verge of retirement when he’s given a dubious assignment — to transport an ailing Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) to a burial ground in Montana so he can die with dignity.
Blocker’s general prejudices toward “natives” along with a personal rivalry leave him ready to sabotage the mission almost immediately. But they proceed, endure plenty of obstacles, and are joined by — among others — a widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was wiped out by Apaches, and a loose-cannon prisoner (Ben Foster) who’s crossed paths with Blocker before.
The film conveys an evocative and richly textured sense of time and place, from the often harsh and perilous physical landscapes during the waning years of the American Old West, to the prevailing cultural and sociopolitical divides that lingered between white settlers and landowners, and oppressed Native American tribes.
The screenplay by director Scott Cooper (Black Mass) doesn’t give its protagonist an easy path to redemption. Bale’s performance captures his character’s complex sense of isolation, fierce loyalty, and suppressed vulnerability through facial expressions and body language more than his sparse dialogue.
The methodical film bogs down in too much extraneous detail in the first hour, rendering the slow and arduous nature of its journey a little too authentic for moviegoers eager for the caravan to pick up the pace.
However, things transition into sharper emotional focus, turning into a powerfully elegiac glimpse into the ultimate idea that “hostiles” existed on both sides. And in that sense, you wish the film hadn’t focused so much attention on Blocker and his subordinates at the expense of the chief and his family.
Still, the film’s quiet intensity makes the outbursts of violence that much more brutal and potent. And it underscores the idea that the characters are reluctantly trying to reconcile a legacy of war with a path to peace.