Christian Bale is one of the best actors working today. He has the ability to do so much with so little, raising the bar each time he takes on a new character. But, Bale is only a mortal man. He alone cannot carry a film alone, which is exactly the task that is set upon him in Hostiles. Bale does an excellent job, but he doesn’t get much support and his performance becomes almost wasted in a film that is middle of the road at best.
The story takes place in 1892, a time when Native and American tensions were at their highest. Revered army captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is close to retiring with a kill count well over one hundred. For his last mission, to his dismay, he must escort a dying native chief (Wes Studi) and his family so he may be buried in his homeland. Blocker and his section must saddle up to make the treacherous journey, which treks from New Mexico to Montana. They quickly meet up with Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), a country woman who recently lost her family to a native raid, leaving her in an elongated state of mental shock. Along with battling elements and the discontent within themselves, the troops must also fend off against warring tribes that are out for blood.
The film is a conventional western through and through, boasting gorgeous shots of the landscape and plenty of shootouts. It tries to call back to the times of John Wayne. While this film tries to harken back to the golden era of westerns, it fails to incorporate one vital component; simplicity. Old westerns were straightforward and to the point, this one isn’t. The film is slow and meandering, often taking breaks from the main plot in an effort to build up the epic scale. So much has happened by the end that it becomes impossible to connect at all to the characters or story.
Also to the detriment of connectivity is the high body count. Tons of characters are either introduced or half developed, and then killed off to try and force you into caring about them. What director Scott Cooper doesn’t understand is that if you don’t care about a character when they are living, then you are not going to care about them when they’re dead.
Now with a couple successful films under his belt, Cooper tries here to illustrate the brutality of western life. He emphasizes the blood, sweat, and tears of each character and how they deal with their seemingly miserable lives. Unfortunately, Cooper overplays his hand as constantly watching 134 minutes of emotional suffering begins to bore quickly. Characters incomprehensibly mutter nonstop about how sad they are and how they wish they could just end it all.
The cinematography is beautifully done by Masanobu Takayanagi, marking his third collaboration with Cooper. Takayanagi keeps the camera motionless most of the time and allows for the characters to move within the frame. This technique gives the western world a sense of stillness, almost like the people are the only thing inhabiting the cruel setting. But people are not the only physical inhabitants. Takayanagi has an eye for surrounding scenery that makes the characters almost feel insignificant compared to the vastness of the land and wildlife.
The film touts some great actors in both leading and supporting roles. Some meet and exceed past the lofty demands, while others struggle to make a difference. Christian Bale is definitely the best part of the film as he carries most of the emotional weight. He has so much in his acting arsenal and is able to switch from gruff killer to stoic hero in the blink of an eye. Rosamund Pike does well with her conflicted character, who is forced into a new, harder life after the butchering of her family. Finally, Wes Studi and Jesse Plemons do respectable jobs with the limited time they get.
For the most part, the actors that struggle to make an impact are the ones whose characters are underdeveloped. Ben Foster cameos as a soldier accused of murder, which is part of a side plot that serves no real purpose. Foster doesn’t do anything new as he plays the character that gives the same old “we’re not so different” speech a couple of times. Timothée Chalamet surprisingly turns up here, trying to add to his already fabulous 2017. His silly French accent and his four total lines of dialogue make him laughably bad. Fortunately for Chalamet, most people won’t bring this film up when talking to him.
While it is ambitious, Hostiles can be slow and rambling as it hopelessly tries to keep your full engagement. No fingers or blame can be pointed, only wishes that there could have been something more. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just alright.