Set in 1892, Hostiles follows the journey of Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) after his unit is ordered to escort a former enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his Cheyenne family out of U.S. confinement and back to their homes in Montana. With the arrival of widow Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), Blocker’s team are at a moral crossroads as they attempt to separate a lifetime of violence from the people they must now protect.
Perhaps the greatest failure of Hostiles is that it never lives up to its gorgeous cinematography. Hostiles puts cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s talents to full use. From the foreground to the background, Hostiles uses the look of the West to craft a setting far more interesting than the film itself. Cooper and Takayanagi’s choices for shot placement are incredible. To say Hostiles is a visual experience is an understatement. Unfortunately, this asset is wasted by a narrative that lacks the color of its visuals.
Hostiles is a film that wants to reject the flawed depiction of Native Americans in classic Western films, as well as showcase the effects of prolonged violence on the human spirit. In concept, these are relevant and dynamic themes that should be explored, but a jumbled and lackluster script from Cooper held these concepts back. Wes Studi’s performance as Chief Yellow Hawk is one of the highlights of the film, but the script continually appears to favor moments with Blocker’s unit sitting around the campfire. These quiet moments are what make Hostiles narratively frustrating.
While these scenes ground the film, they also restrict the viewers ability to accept the changes in relationship between the soldiers and Native Americans. While antagonizing forces certainly reshape the soldier-Native American dynamic, there is never a sequence of opposition that makes the changes in personality feel justified. The changes in personality are one sided. We are never given enough time with Studi’s character, or his family, to understand their personal view of the soldiers. For a film that wants to refute the Western genre’s stereotypes of Native Americans, the script appears more content showing Blockers viewpoint, thematically damaging the film.
The performances throughout Hostiles suffer the same lack of energy as the film’s narrative. Bale, who is known for his intensity, appears rather reserved. Wes Studi’s Chief Yellow Hawk is fantastic, but, as previously stated, isn’t in the film enough. The standout performance, however, is from Rosamund Pike. Pike portrays her character’s losses with raw emotion, and as her character becomes wethered by the hardships of the west, her performance exhibits the energy that is missing from the rest of the film.
While Hostiles offers a powerful visual experience in addition to featuring a stellar performance from Rosamund Pike, a jumbled narrative ultimately holds the film back from the success it could have had. If the cinematography is the sports car in the analogy, the jumbled narrative is without a doubt the careless driver taking it off the cliff.