It is 1892 New Mexico, and the violence and genocide that has shaped the Europeans’ settlement in the American West is winding down. Hostiles’ difficult opening scene shows a gang of marauding Indians slaughter almost an entire family of white settlers, leaving with their horses and setting fire to their homestead. But then the next scene has U.S. Army soldiers assaulting and dragging a Native man behind a horse in front of his terrified and screaming wife and child. If there are any winners in this war, their souls have been completely broken by this point.
Army Captain Joe Blocker (the always excellent Christian Bale) has been a soldier longer than he can remember, and has lost more friends than he can count. When he is assigned the task of escorting dying Cheyenne prisoner, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his Montana homeland as a last wish, Blocker is so furious that he almost refuses and risks court martial. Blocker and Yellow Hawk are longtime enemies, and share a long violent past. But Yellow Hawk and his family are beaten, and just want to go home. Blocker makes sure that as soon as they are on their journey, that he won’t make it pleasant for Yellow Hawk.
On the way, they stumble across the homestead from the opening scene, and pick up the only survivor, Mrs. Quaid (Rosamund Pike), still clutching her dead baby. Hostiles makes the most of the silent and the vast, often unforgiving landscape of the West. A moment where the woman insists on burying her family with her own hands is all the more devastating as the men quietly and respectfully step back until the time is right to help. It is one of the many powerful scenes that uses the space in between dialogue to have the power.
Hostiles rambles like a satisfying, slowly-read novel. It doesn’t cleanly fit into thirds like many films, as the travelers come across various good and bad folks, including the prisoner that they pick up at a fort, the disgraced murderer and soldier played by Ben Foster. Though Bale’s Blocker is a man of few words, his interactions with other soldiers that have served as long as he has are perhaps the most moving. He seems to have it more together than the others (including his weary friend Tommy, played by Rory Cochrane, who moved me to tears more than once), but you know that Blocker is right at the end of his own rope in the fight. This world weariness is shared by the dying Yellow Hawk, and it takes this journey to slowly awaken a sort of warrior-respect in each for the other.
There are definitely no winners in Hostiles, and it is relentlessly bleak. But gosh, what a beautifully made film. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is gorgeous, and the soundtrack is appropriately understated. Christian Bale has been so good for so long, that you can forget how effortlessly he can disappear into a role. With a bushy walrus moustache and weary eyes, he could easily be an old daguerreotype photo come to life. He is surrounded by an excellent cast, and a thought-provoking story that offers no easy answers. The film is brutal and sad, and I’m not sure I can watch it again any time soon, but it is easily one of my favorites of the year.