Hostiles is a bloody, muddy tone poem verging on misery porn

A strong cast and propulsive script save Scott Cooper’s film from drowning in nihilism.

Rory Cochrane, Timothée Chalamet, Christian Bale, Jesse Plemons and Jonathan Majors in Hostiles

The big trend in Westerns starting in the 1960s was revisionism — taking the well-established tropes of the genre and throwing mud, blood, sweat and spit on them, gritting them up to remove the sheen of respectability that the genre had accumulated over time and replacing it with “what really happened.” The current trend in Westerns is that there are about three made in any given year, which has interestingly led to a minor cottage industry of low-budget, somewhat classicist straight-to-VOD Westerns. The straight cowboy movie where the guy in the white hat is inevitably the good guy and the Native American characters have little agency have become the commercial norm again, which leaves it up to bigger, broader productions like Hostiles to make with the revisionism.

Except that Scott Cooper’s Hostiles does not really trade in the Sam Peckinpah tradition of blood and guts and flies on bloated corpses. It’s an old-school widescreen Western that has perhaps more to do aesthetically with the work of Clint Eastwood. Where Hostiles is revisionist is in its cold, dark heart. Some have accused the film of being racist, or at least condescending to its First Nations characters, but what it actually comes closest to is pure nihilism. In the world of Hostiles, there are no good and bad people, just people somewhere along the line of killing or being killed.

Christian Bale stars as Captain Joseph Blocker, a military man who has earned the highest honours for his cold-blooded dispatching and butchery of so-called savages. His time among the Cheyennes has made him a reluctant authority in the field; he speaks the language but hates them profoundly, holding any and all First Nations accountable for the deaths of good men. Nevertheless, it’s this particular expertise that sees him assigned to escort ailing Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his native lands to die.

Faced with the prospect of a court-martial should he decline, Blocker heads out with his team — his troubled longtime compatriot Metz (Rory Cochrane), West Point newbie Kidder (Jesse Plemons), teenage Frenchman DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) and Buffalo Soldier Woodson (Jonathan Majors) — and Yellow Hawk’s family (including Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) across the treacherous West. Somewhere along the way they pick up shell-shocked widow Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family is brutally slaughtered by Comanches in the film’s opening scene, and a psychotic war criminal (Ben Foster) who they have to bring to justice.

Hostiles opens with a baby getting shot and somehow gets even more dim about humanity. Demolishing the myths of the Old West is nothing new, but Cooper has a salt-the-ground approach to revisionism, positing that it was a gross and fucked-up period in which everyone ended up choking on their own blood in the desert for a reason. Cooper’s bleak and generally hopeless approach to the myths of the Old West come dangerously close to Iñárritu-level misery porn in which every tragic action is inevitably one-upped by an even more tragic consequence. Only Pike’s character truly rises to the opportunity of her tragic background. Her character has the most indelible scenes, including one where she digs her family’s grave with her bare hands. Even her relatively underwritten character towers over Blocker, who spends the entire movie glumly peeking over his walrus mustache.

When Hostiles screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the cast and crew came out to present the film. The lion’s share of the introduction was done by one of the film’s advisors, a Cheyenne man whose name I regrettably did not take down and am apparently unable to retrace. He spoke of the great respect that Cooper and the film’s team had for his people and their traditions and how proud he was of the finished product. He finished by blessing the entire theatre in the Cheyenne tradition. There’s no way to know how much of that was promotional flim-flam and, in any case, what people say before presenting a film should have no bearing on what the film actually contains. What I do think this exemplifies, however, is that the idea that Hostiles explores isn’t one that’s necessarily tied to its Western setting. (For those of you following at home, it’s called Hostiles because everyone in it is a hostile to another person.)

It’s a fine line between existential despair and brow-beaten hopelessness. The points that the film seeks to make — that man is fundamentally violent, that the desire for revenge and self-actualization will always trump understanding of the Other — are not particularly subtle. There’s certainly something effective about all this misery. Though Hostiles is rarely what I’d call entertaining, it is undeniably propulsive. Cooper has filled his cast with ringers, and he certainly has a knack for atmosphere that isn’t necessarily supported by the writing. (His last two films, Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, also jolted middling scripts with great casts and a palpable sense of time and place.) Hostiles works better as a bloody, muddy tone poem than it does as a narrative, its fatalistic moping better taken in bite-size chunks than as one unbroken string of endless misery. ■

Hostiles opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 19. Watch the trailer here: