Dir: Scott Cooper
The post-Unforgiven (1992) era of westerns could be summed up by pointing to their decrease in quantity being more than compensated for by their increase in quality. Somehow it could only have been Clint Eastwood who did what he did with that milestone movie. Here was the icon of the sixties spaghetti six-shooter, now firing behind the camera too, shifting focus beyond the typical surface iconography, to much deeper, human drama. In turn it rejuvenated an entire, seemingly exhausted genre.
The simplistic convention of cowboys battling injuns was dated, shallow and overdone. Ever since, the western has sat more comfortably alongside the period piece: a more authentic depiction that just happens to be set against such a cinematic and enigmatic backdrop. That backdrop, in its historical context, is the U.S. parallel to the British Victorian gothic. Both mark the advancing technological strides in the final years of the 19th century. The first wave of steam locomotion was on the cusp of transforming the American plains on the tracks to modernity.
Christian Bale’s casting serves as a stamp of integrity all by itself. With a back catalogue as credible as his, his position in the lead is a statement of gritty intent. His well-documented tendency for a short temper, in actuality, doesn’t do anything but add to the required ruthlessness of the character. So he feels perfectly chosen as Captain Blocker; the hard-bitten, right-thinking army captain, bearing the scars of battling a most brutal enemy for the whole of his adult life. On the verge of hanging up his uniform, he’s given one last order. One that every fibre of his being wants to defy.
He’s to transport an ageing native chief (Wes Studi), long captive of the army, across country so he can face his final days in his homeland, surrounded by his own people. Blocker assembles a band of militia to guard the chief and his family, and heads the entourage out into lawless territory. They soon encounter a young mother (Rosamund Pike), in the grip of grief after suffering unbearable loss to rampaging thieves. The reserved tenderness with which Blocker takes her into his care elaborates to become the pulse of the film. Pike’s numbed-by-shock performance is sweetly affecting as the Captain gently chips away at her defences.
Occasional bursts of visceral violence are all the more powerful for their scarcity, but this is largely a plaintive trip across the nostalgia of the wild west, and into the power to be found in reaching across divisions, in finding strength in unity. Its themes are delicately emphasised by a statuesque and contemplative score from Max Richter, and every one of a fine supporting cast is fully rounded enough to engage your care. Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons is aptly hesitant as the inexperienced lieutenant on the nervous brink of manhood, and Peter Mullan offers gruff welcome as the avuncular Colonel at the halfway point’s stop-off. Ben Foster shines brightest (as so often the case), as the unrepentant convict Blocker is additionally tasked to deliver to his punishment.
Hostiles is a gut and heart-grabbing examination of what surviving in such savage times does to a person. The title might question the true origins of such hostility, but it’s a further-reaching consideration of the impact of violence, anger and the healing power of shared understanding. That it should combine such heartfelt drama with rip-roaring, ricocheting shoot-outs transports the contemporary western onwards. Into a rarefied plain that is deeply satisfying.
★ ★ ★ ★