Historical films are a weak spot for me, I love history and can’t get enough of stories set in the past. I also have a deep appreciation for stories told from the point of view of people of color. When I saw the trailer for this film, I was intrigued by the concept which is a soldier escorting a Cheyenne Chief back to his home. An added bonus was Wes Studi played the Chief. Having seen him in other roles, I knew he would be brilliant. I was not disappointed. While the story ends up being told from the point of view of a white soldier, it still brought a truthful depiction of the life of Native Americans in the time period portrayed. The acting was emotional and powerful, by Wes Studi, Christian Bale and the rest of the ensemble. I thoroughly enjoyed the subtle nuances of the story and the acting.
The film begins in violence with Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) watching her husband and three children slaughtered by Comanche. This sets the tone early. Next, we meet Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), a career soldier who does his duty with cold will. He is educated, reads Julius Caesar in Latin, and hates the Native Indians. His commanding officer, Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) gives him a hateful mission, to escort the dying Chief Yellowhawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their home, traveling from New Mexico to Montana. Yellowtail is an old enemy of Joe’s and killed friends of Joe’s in war. While Joe resists at first, he eventually reluctantly agrees, gathering together a group of men, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), Corporal Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), Lieutenant Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), and Private Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet).
They begin their journey, escorting the chief and his family, his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his daughter Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), his son’s wife, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and his grandson, Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief). They are barely tolerated by Blocker and he keeps the men chained. They soon encounter Rosalie, and Joe softens, as he shows the widow compassion and brings her along on their journey. She brings a new element to the group and Elk Woman reaches out to her in kindness. Chief Yellowhawk convinces Joe that they must work together against the Comanches that attacked Rosalie and the beginning of a wary respect between the two develops. As the group advances through the wilderness, the pair gain an understanding of each other’s losses and reach a resolution that is emotional and poignant.
What drives the story is harsh truth of the West and how difficult relations were between the Native tribes and white soldiers. One of the elements that is well developed is the sense of how difficult war is and its impact on those who have fought. The director, Scott Cooper, does an excellent job of bringing examples of how impacted the soldiers are having fought for so long. Joe Blocker is cold and distant until he meets Rosalie. His sergeant, Metz, complains of having melancholia. Another soldier Charles Wills (Ben Foster) has turned into a brutal killer and is being escorted to justice for his crimes. Each has struggled with their actions and in each, we are shown that they don’t always cope.
Another aspect to the film that I appreciated was the attempt at showing both sides, the soldiers that victimize the Native tribes and the tribes that have lost their homes, who strike out in anger, attacking white settlers. The group encounters white fur trappers who attack the women as well as the soldier who has been imprisoned for viciously attacking Natives. While I would have preferred more development of the Native Americans, we are shown wisdom and kindness from Chief Yellowhawk and his family. Their presence shows the truth of what the soldiers have done and allows Joe to see that by doing his duty, he has caused as many losses to the Chief as he has experienced. In a beautiful scene, Metz confesses to Chief Yellowhawk that there can be no forgiveness for the pain they caused and offers a pouch of tobacco in a gesture of redemption. It is moments like this that share the wider truth this film holds, that we cannot escape the past but we can learn from it, treating each other with kindness instead of ugliness and treat all peoples with respect.
The acting is incredible. Christian Bale plays the dutiful, gruff soldier but also conveys an endearing compassion and loss. His character is the heart of the movie. He carries the weight well, allowing us to move with his character through the landscape of the west and through hatred to understanding. Wes Studi is grace in motion as Chief Yellowhawk, conveying wisdom and sadness. Rosamund Pike is brilliantly fierce and painful to watch as she shows us the grief and anger of her character. All of the parts from large to small are well cast, each actor bringing their best to the screen. I was convinced that the Native Americans were portraying real historical figures and didn’t realize until I got home that the movie was entirely fictional. This demonstrates how accomplished a job the actors did with their parts.
The cinematography is equally excellent, most of the filming done on location, including areas of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. This choice lends an authenticity to the scenery and we get to see some of the most gorgeous landscapes along the travelers journey. The film is the better for this grounding in reality.
While overall this is a solid film, moviegoers should be aware that the pacing is slow to allow the story of the characters to develop. There are also some predictable scenes to viewers who are familiar with Westerns, especially the obstacles the group encounters. I was a tiny disappointed that the main point of view character was white. I would have liked to have seen a Native American viewpoint. In addition, I felt like Ben Foster should have had a bigger part. He is a incredible actor and lived up to that acting in the movie. Regrettably, his part was small and he was not in the film long enough for me.
These are small issues, though, in a movie full of beauty and emotion. The story comes to an incredible resolution, full of growth and respect. The filming is incredible. The acting is impassioned and believable, each character rich and full of depth. I found Christian Bale’s performance moving and Wes Studi was phenomenal. If you don’t mind a slower pace or you love the Western genre, I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4 stars
Set in 1892, Hostiles tells the story of a legendary Army Captain (Christian Bale), who after stern resistance, reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. Making the harrowing and perilous journey from Fort Berringer, an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico, to the grasslands of Montana, the former rivals encounter a young widow (Rosamund Pike), whose family was murdered on the plains. Together, they must join forces to overcome the punishing landscape, hostile Comanche and vicious outliers that they encounter along the way.
Cast: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Rosamund Pike, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, Jonathan Majors, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet, Paul Anderson, Ryan Bingham, David Midthunder, John Benjamin, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp
Screenplay by: Scott Cooper, Donald E. Stewart
Directed by: Scott Cooper