Westerns have certainly declined in popularity over the last 50 years or so, and in 2017 one could reasonably question what value there is to be found in revisiting the cowboy and Indian tropes of yesteryear. Hostiles answers that question, at least in a manner of speaking. It’s a revisionist Western following the playbook of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but unlike that film, it’s not only trying to reinvent the genre but also to subvert it entirely. The film plays like an open refutation of John Ford’s entire oeuvre and has all of the bleak nihilism of a Cormac McCarthy novel with none of the philosophical underpinnings — it’s an ordeal, and yet it somehow manages to be imminently watchable in spite of itself.
By saying that Hostiles is an ordeal, I don’t necessarily mean that it’s bad — just that it’s unremittingly merciless, both to its characters and its audience. It seems that at least half of the film’s egregiously long running time is dedicated to digging graves, while the other half is spent in a relentless PTSD malaise. Christian Bale stars as Joseph Blocker too-old-for-this-shit Army Captain in 1890s Arizona — a career soldier whose life has been dedicated to the slaughter of Native Americans in an era when shifting political tides are rapidly marginalizing men of his ilk. Tasked with returning a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) to his homeland in Montana, Capt. Blocker leads a small band of soldiers and natives, with the addition of a recently widowed Rosamund Pike, on a harrowing journey that dives deep into man’s inhumanity to man with little purpose and even less hope.
Writer/director Scott Cooper leans heavily on the Fordian influence but actively toys with the formula. Whereas Ford famously framed John Wayne in the doorway of a homesteader cabin in the last shot of The Searchers, in Cooper’s conception of the West, the cabin has already been burned to the ground. The titular hostiles here aren’t exclusively the Native Americans; they’re literally everyone that Bale and his cohort encounter. Death is the only Manifest Destiny at play in Cooper’s West, a world of inexorable brutality that spares no one — even the survivors, of which there are few.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — the pitch black worldview of Hostiles, it’s a consistently engaging film that feels at times like an endurance test crafted to challenge its audience’s appetite for destruction as much as to subvert their expectations. The scripting is overly transparent, especially in terms of who gets murdered/raped/traumatized (spoiler alert: everyone), but that seems to be intrinsic to Cooper’s design. What Hostiles lacks in mystery it more than makes up for in visceral impact, with Cooper grabbing the audience by the throat from the first frames and never loosening his grip until the final sequence. It’s a fresh take on a neglected genre with a unique and thought-provoking perspective — but caveat emptor: Idle escapism it is not. Rated R for strong violence, and language.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.