It’s been a long time since Hollywood has produced a Cowboys-And-Indians movie, and there hasn’t been one like “Hostiles.” It’s 1892, a time when the US Cavalry and western settlers were taking more and more land from the native population, and relations were, let’s say, not good.
In the very first scene, Comanches attack a family ranch, killing the father and children and burning down the house. Only the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), gets away. It’s a brutal scene — consider that your warning that this is one violent movie.
Next, we meet Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), whose troops are rounding up an Apache family and brings them to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Upon his arrival, he’s informed by a superior officer that President Benjamin Harrison has ordered the Army to transport an ailing Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to his tribal burial grounds in Montana, and Blocker is chosen to lead the detail. He resists, since he’s hated all Indians his entire life, and Yellow Hawk is responsible for the deaths of several of Blocker’s friends. But when he’s threatened with losing his Army pension, Blocker reluctantly agrees. Along the way, they come across Rosalie and, of course, they take her along.
As Blocker, Bale continues to show his broad range of roles. From “The Fighter” to “American Hustle” to “The Big Short” to “Hostiles,” no two of his characters are alike; each is a vivid persona who keeps you riveted. My only complaint about Blocker — and this is Cooper’s fault, not Bale’s — is that he’s repeatedly shown reading Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” as if that softens up a man for whom slaughtering other men has been an occupation he’s mighty comfortable with.
Rosalie, as played by Pike, is a woman torn apart by the murder of her family, yet determined to make a new life somewhere. If you have any doubt that she and Blocker will be attracted to each other and act on it, well, you haven’t seen enough movies.
As Yellow Hawk, Studi is stoic. He’s played this part many times over the years, as one of the two go-to actors playing any kind of American Indian (the other is Graham Greene, who had to make nice with Kevin Costner’s white soldier in “Dances With Wolves”). Fortunately, Yellow Hawk is given more to do that just sit on a horse. He recognizes the danger from the Comanches, who would kill him and the other Cherokees as quickly as they’d scalp the Army soldiers. Studi and Bale have good chemistry in several scenes, and it’s their relationship I found the most interesting in “Hostiles.”
“Hostiles” was written and directed by Scott Cooper, who I’ll never forgive for letting Jeff Bridges mumble his way through “Crazy Heart” on the way to an Oscar. He also made a big mess of “Black Mass,” with Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger.
At least in “Hostiles,” he gets the scenery right, and uses a solid cast of supporting actors along the way, including Bill Camp, Timothee Chalamet, Rory Cochrane, and Jesse Plemons (currently America’s most prolific actor, appearing in more than a half-dozen projects produced in the last year alone). Ben Foster has a small but important role as a disgraced sergeant sentenced to hang for indiscriminately killing Indians, and he’s not above pointing out the irony that he’s going to die for something his friend Blocker has done his whole career.
It took me a few days to figure out whether I liked “Hostiles,” but in the end I decided to give it a 7 out of 10 — but don’t see it if you’re squeamish, particularly about scalping.