After its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September, Scott Cooper’s western odyssey, Hostiles, earned critical praise and got a limited release in late December, just before the deadline for Oscar eligibility. Unfortunately, after a month-long marketing campaign, the film was released nationwide today after being shut out of the nominations. After spending the afternoon taking it in, I have to say, I side with the Academy on this one.
Christian Bale stars as Joe Blocker, an army captain on the American frontier in 1892. An aging soldier who’s seen more than his fair share of bloodshed, he’s tasked with escorting an imprisoned Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to Montana, so that he may die on his ancestral land. Blocker and Yellow Hawk were on opposite sides of quite a few Army/Indian encounters, and they apparently hate each other, so Blocker is more than a touch hesitant to take on this final assignment before he retires.
Along the way, the caravan encounters Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the sole survivor of an attack from Comanches that left her husband and children dead and her home burned. The journey is meant to be a symbolic meeting of the minds, where prejudices on both sides are eased by seeing each other’s humanity.
The problem is that for the most part we’re left to imagine the horrors that everyone has endured. Bale basically affects his low-register grumble from the Dark Knight trilogy (and slows down the speed of his speech by a factor of 10), grows his hair out just enough so that he has permanent hat head, and has a big, bushy mustache that prevents you from seeing his lips move as he speaks. As such, he is basically stone-faced throughout the two hours plus of the film’s runtime. Studi also maintains one facial expression throughout.
Because of this, and because we never see any action to establish the harshness with which these men led their lives, we don’t get any real sense that they’ve experienced any real trauma, and therefore cannot really tell when they’ve evolved emotionally. Almost everything is established through dialogue, usually in lengthy one-on-one conversations that are meant to build pathos. Unfortunately, since all the interchangeable travelling companions (Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, Rory Cochrane, etc.) are so clearly marked for death and/or grievous injury right from the moment we meet them (and again halfway through when they’re replaced by another set of soon-to-be corpses as the plot basically resets itself), the sentiments ring hollow and their eventual demises elicit no reaction other than, “Wait, which one was that, again?”
The only one who truly gets to progress is Pike’s character. The film opens with Comanches brutally murdering her husband, picking off her children like tin cans on a fence post, burning down her house, and chasing her into a thicket where she evades them by hiding under a root. When she’s found by Blocker still cradling her dead baby and literally screaming at the sight of Yellow Hawk and his family, you can truly feel for her and understand her plight, allowing her eventual reconciliation and rapport with the Indians to have merit and meaning.
The closest we get to any of that for Blocker is what is meant to be a parallel establishing scene early on, where he and some of his men taunt and whip some “redskins” before lassoing them and taking them off to a prison fort. But even then it doesn’t really work, as Bale just watches the abuse with a deadpan expression. It’s nowhere near as visceral as what Pike’s character had to witness, and there’s none of the sadistic glee that other characters tell us Blocker had in his work. I’ve said it many a time. I love good dialogue, but if something is important to the plot or a character, a movie needs to show us what’s going on, rather than just telling us about it. All that talking just serves to make us imagine a better movie we don’t get to see. It doesn’t have to be all action, but it needs to more than just words, otherwise those words are empty.
Apart from these character development flaws, the film suffers from a severe lack of pacing. It’s beautifully shot, but it drags endlessly. When Pike hid from the Comanche raider, I was reminded of Frodo Baggins hiding from a Nazgul in Lord of the Rings. Well, apparently that was just the appetizer, because more than half of Hostiles is just walking/casually trotting on horseback. It’s as if they took every tedious walking scene from the LOTR trilogy and put them side-by-side, then changed everyone to frontier outfits. Even the scenes of dialogue are 30-40 seconds longer than necessary, as every shot change and response is greeted with a pause so pregnant it might as well be in labor. Seriously, if you just had everyone talking at a normal rate and edited the scenes to reflect a normal conversation, this film would be at least 20 minutes shorter than it is. Hell, the freaking credits even do a slow burn, fading on the above-the-line crew names a full two seconds before their titles show up.
So should you pay to see this movie? With confidence I can say no, you shouldn’t. It’s not terrible by any means, but there’s also nothing really worth recommending. The cinematography is nice, but honestly, with westerns, when is it not? Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike give decent performances, but they’ve both done much better work that you can easily find for cheaper than the price of a ticket to see this movie in the theatre. For example, my matinee price was $11.00, and you can rent Gone Girl and The Fighter on iTunes for a combined price of $7.98 right now. If you’re into westerns, it’s worth a look once it’s available on home video, but otherwise, save your money for something better. They ran a massive Oscar campaign and came up empty, and rightfully so.