Critics seem divided on the latest interpretation of the great American Western, Hostiles (2018). Is it an “excellent modern take on the Western” or is it “a brutal, shallow Western“? Well, there is truth in both views about the new movie directed by Scott Cooper.
The film is set in the West during 1892 in the waning period of the American Indian wars, around six years after Geronimo has surrendered and less than two years after the Wounded Knee massacre. Christian Bale stars in Hostiles as Joseph Blocker, a captain nearing retirement. BLocker has seen and done horrible things during the wars with the Native Americans.
Blocker’s final assignment is to escort an ill chief (Wes Studi) from New Mexico back to his tribe’s lands in Montana so the chief may die on his own soil. Blocker, who has nothing but hatred for the Native Americans, does not want the assignment. But he is forced into it. So, he sets off with a few men and the chief and the chief’s family.
Along the way, Blocker’s group picks up new people and loses others. The film opens with some Native Americans killing a family, with the only survivor being Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Soon, Blocker’s group finds Quaid, still traumatized from her own experience.
The movie follows Blocker’s struggles with his beliefs about duty and about his old foes as he also tries to get his group to safety in a hostile land. Some of the travelers have their own demons. And other characters are somewhat developed, but the film mainly focuses on Bale’s character.
Not the Greatest, But a Good Addition to the Western Canon
There are echoes of other Westerns here. Blocker’s changing assortment of traveling characters may remind one of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), for example. But the most obvious connection here is to John Ford’s beautiful classic, The Searchers (1956). That film followed John Wayne’s racist character searching for his niece. One may also recognize echoes of the final shot from The Searchers in the final scene of Hostiles, one of my favorite touches in the new film.
Hostiles does not rank among my favorite Westerns. But it does a decent job telling a story steeped in realism as do many revisionist Westerns, even if one may debate how far the movie deviates from traditional Western stereotypes. And the acting is superb all around. The movie features another great performance from the always fascinating Bale, who also did a very good turn in the recent Western 3:10 to Yuma (2007).
The movie, though, is not an enjoyable ride. While there are scenes of horrible violence, the movie lacks the excitement and pace of most Westerns.
Darker Westerns can still show flashes of joy or humor — as do The Searchers, Unforgiven (1992), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and The Outlaw Josey Wales. But there is little human joy or laughter in Hostiles. The story reveals some friendships and human connections. But the dour movie could have done more with them. Those few moments still seem buried in the darkness of the story, perhaps because the camera rarely leaves the grim Blocker.
Hostiles is a good movie and anyone who enjoys Westerns should check it out. I see why critics and viewers are somewhat split on the film, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 72% Critics Rating and a 71% Audience Rating. While Hostiles is not a fun ride and one may debate its success as a Revisionist Western, the film gets credit for trying to do something deeper than most recent action movies.
What did you think of Hostiles? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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