Scott Cooper/ USA/ 2017/ 135 mins
At Filmhouse Cinema, Edinburgh from Fri 5 Jan 2018
The Western has rarely been in ruder health. A willingness to address and revise the standard myths of the Old West has led to a resurgence in a genre that had been considered moribund. Since, arguably Unforgiven, filmmakers have looked at the western as a way of examining ideas such as race, masculinity, morality and America’s place in the World within a specific framework using tropes familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of film. Scott Cooper is the latest to saddle up in a brutal, full-blooded, but agonisingly earnest tale of a cavalry officer tasked with escorting a dying Cheyenne chief back home.
Cooper’s leading man in Out of the Furnace, Christian Bale brings his customary glowering intensity to his role as Joseph Blocker, a veteran of numerous conflicts, who has “claimed more scalps than Sitting Bull himself”, and who hates Native Americans with the force of a thousand suns. He takes his orders with ill grace and soon has Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family in chains. On the way to Montana they come across a grieving and traumatised Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose husband and three children are massacred by Comanche raiders in an unspeakably upsetting prologue. This display of savagery is counterpointed in Bale’s introduction as he treats indigenous captives in similar fashion. It’s both even and heavy-handed, and sets the tone for a worthy but occasionally leaden story.
Pike’s introduction to the gang leads to the expected thawing in relations between the soldiers and Cheyenne, especially as occasional skirmishes with the Comanche necessitate the removal of their shackles. She matches Bale easily and the central journey can be seen as a metaphor for the pair coming to terms with trauma. For all the modern, liberal sensibilities Cooper brings to his story however, it is very much told through a white lens. Studi is given little to do except look noble and occasionally offer sage mutterings; precisely the kind of patronising stereotyping you would think Cooper would be at pains to avoid. His family fare no better, serving as mere plot fodder such as a kidnapping by fur trappers rather than as rounded characters. This is an almost unforgivable marginalisation given the film’s central message of equality.
The film’s great length also makes the thousand-mile trudge feel almost in real time on occasions. It necessitates the addition of great character actors like Peter Mullan and Ben Foster in extended cameos to add some gold amidst the grit. They certainly enliven proceedings, adding further grist to the philosophical mill, yet wrest further screen time from Studi and family.
That isn’t to say that Hostiles is a failure. There is much to admire, particularly in the performances and the ravishing vistas filmed by Masanobu Takayanagi. It requires a certain fortitude to get the most from it, and as such it’s easy to predict it may not be an overwhelming success at the box office. However, it’s just about worth it, for all the evident flaws.