In preparation for seeing Hostiles the next day, me and my parents recently watched Open Range. It made me realise that I’m a sucker for Westerns, which is strange considering the fact that my favourite genre is sci-fi. But films like Magnificent Seven (original and remake), 3:10 to Yuma, The Revenant, For a Few Dollars More, and even Blazing Saddles are among some of my favourites to just whack on the TV of an evening. Hostiles began as an equal to these films, but I’m afraid it peaked far too early.
Christian Bale plays Captain Joe Blocker, a US cavalryman tasked with transporting a dying Cheyenne and his family across to Montana. But the Cheyenne is Chief Yellow Hawk, Blocker’s bitter rival from the Plains Wars, a fact Blocker must come to terms with lest he face court martial and the retraction of any benefit for his time served in the military. Over the course of his journey, he also comes across Rosamund Pike’s character. I genuinely don’t remember her name and I like to point out this fact instead of just looking it up for the review, because it shows how weak her character actually was. A story of honour and forgiveness, honestly, for a movie entitled ‘Hostiles’ it contains considerably fewer than expected.
I mentioned above that Hostiles peaked too early. Our neighbour came round for tea before we watched the film, and he told us that he’d watched the first half an hour or so and found it violent and terrifying. It’s violent enough, but certainly nothing special, and there are a few tense moments for sure. The Comanche stalking Rosamund Pike’s character (who I’ve just learnt from IMDB is called Rosalie, so we’ll just refer to her as such for the rest of the review) is genuinely chilling, and seeing her whole family get killed in seconds is harrowing-ish, I suppose. It sort of happens too quickly to really conjure up any sort of emotion other than slight distaste, though, a trend we shall see runs through the rest of the film. Some other great aspects of the film’s first half hour are the acting, where Christian Bale’s performance is just phenomenal, and the locations. In fact, the latter stays fairly satisfying throughout. But then Bale’s moping, mumbling soldier-type demeanour becomes quite frustrating. Man, I really am having trouble giving this any praise, aren’t I?
However, one more thing I want to point out before we move onto the real criticisms is the character of Tommy. At the outset of the film, he mentions to Blocker over a glass of whiskey that the doctors say he has the melancholia. Then, almost at the film’s climax, Tommy rides off into the woods in a rainstorm wearing nothing but his breeches, and is later found sitting against a tree with a bullet in his head and a pistol in his hand, the barrel streaked with blood. I can’t remember ever seeing a character who suffers from depression and suicidal tendencies in a film before, at least not one where they aren’t the main subject of the plot. But as someone who has battled with similar feelings myself in the past, I think it was a great addition and really added to the depth of the characterisation. Tommy’s character is so much more amplified by this inner struggle which, even though it only surfaces a few times, is one that many filmmakers are unwilling to pay attention to.
To focus on a true positive, let’s look at the ending of the film, where Blocker escorts Rosalie and the now adopted Little Bear, Yellow Hawk’s grandson and the only surviving Cheyenne of the group, to the train station. He sees them onto the train then turns to walk away, the film winding down with a tastefully done slow-motion sequence. We see Rosalie crying in the carriage. We see Blocker walk away. We see Rosalie wiping her tears. We see Blocker stop. He turns to face the camera and stares into the audience’s soul with big mournful eyes for what feels like a whole thirty seconds (a long time to break the fourth wall). Then, slowly, elegantly, he walks along the platform after the train. As the music swells to its crescendo, Blocker puts a hand on the guardrail and lifts himself up onto the back of the last car, followed by a fade to black. It damn nearly redeemed the entire film for me, but after sleeping on it I realised that, try as it might, such a well-done ending couldn’t blind me completely to the shortcomings of the film throughout the rest of its runtime.
On a side note, there’s a particularly beautiful if detached sequence where Bale lays his gun in the dirt and silently screams while lightning strikes on the horizon and thunderclouds roll overhead. But that’s a single minute out of a hundred and thirty, so perhaps isn’t quite enough to sway me.
To be Improved:
Let’s start off with the most niggling issue I have: campfires. Bloody campfires. My mum put her head in her hands near the films climax and moaned “No more campfires”, but almost on cue they managed to put another ten second shot of the Cheyenne family sitting around one. It was to show the passage of time, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfectly awful. In all seriousness, there is just far too much sitting around and talking. Every scene, pretty much, is in a camp, or ends with Blocker ordering his men to stop and make one.
Another big problem I have is that the primary antagonist seems to be the plot itself. Anything to get in the way of our heroes goes, really. The Comanche, who are the coolest looking but least explored members of the cast (as is the case with many things, here’s looking at you, Boba Fett), and are frankly wasted. After a brief but exciting altercation, the troop sets off on another day and finds the last two Comanches killed, murdered in the night by the Cheyenne Blocker is escorting. It’s scenes like this that I want to see instead of the aftermath. I know you can only squeeze so much into two hours, but it would have fleshed out Yellow Hawk’s character no end. Instead, we’re left with the desire to see what happened and how he singlehandedly took down the two vicious warriors who, oh, I don’t know, murdered Rosalie’s whole family at the beginning of the film, but no satisfaction. Speaking of that fact, after being picked up by Blocker, Rosalie initially sees the Cheyenne he is transporting and shies away, screaming and crying. Then, after the Comanche attack again, she immediately, nay, purposefully makes a beeline to the Cheyenne and cowers with them. It’s a blatant contradiction to the character’s personality, and very jarring.
The final gunfight (which caused me to whisper “It’s not a Western unless everyone dies” in my girlfriend’s ear) is very muted and, whadya know, everyone dies in about six seconds flat, very back and forth in the nature of one protagonist down, one antagonist down, one protagonist, one antagonist, until there’s only a few left and of course the love interest and main hero, shot through the wrist but apparently impervious to any damage caused thanks to the wonder of plot armour, are the last ones standing. It doesn’t really work, and has nothing like the stakes, dynamics or duration of final shootouts such as those found in the true classics.
And finally, on a small technical note, there is a series of very awful shots of sunsets containing massive, painfully blue and purple Star Wars and Star Trek-esque flares. It completely detracts from the film as these strips of neon colour only occur when light goes through a manmade lens, so it immediately makes it clear that there’s a film crew present. What’s even worse is the fact that the flares aren’t even mixed up with the other, more natural colours. They’re completely isolated of off to one side, and I’m no expert, but it seems to me like they could have very easily been edited out. Accidental or deliberate, it was a huge oversight to include them.
What a load of drivel. Songs round innumerable campfires, deaths that happen off-screen, a final gunfight where you don’t even see the last kill even though it’s the most satisfying (Blocker performing a Comache-style “stem to stern” slit with a bowie knife), a cast of characters where the most memorable one has about ten lines then shoots himself. Strange, then, that critics are hailing this as one of the most brutal Westerns ever made, a fact which not only makes me throw my head back and laugh, but also causes me to wonder if perchance they’ve ever seen Bone Tomahawk, Hateful Eight, or even Slow West. With probably three instances of actual bloody violence, and even then ones that are so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that by definition they are nowhere near “brutal”, I’ll repeat what I started this review with: the cast and plot of Hostiles are anything but.