Retribution and regret are saddle-sore travelling companions in writer-director Scott Cooper’s gritty western, set during the final years of the bloodthirsty war between the United States Army and Native Americans.
Adapted from an unproduced manuscript by screenwriter Donald E Stewart, Hostiles cocks its pistol towards political correctness by apportioning blame for the slaughter to both sides of the conflict.
As one white soldier in the film confesses: “We’re all guilty of something.”
Cooper’s script isn’t inclined to rigorously debate moral ambiguities and characters sometimes enforce racial and tribal stereotypes for the sake of dramatic expediency.
However, boundaries between conventional heroes and villains are intriguingly blurred, and justice is seldom granted to battle-scarred characters as they endure “the Lord’s rough ways”.
Christian Bale delivers a blistering performance as a world-weary army captain, whose humanity is revitalised by an unexpected encounter with the sole survivor of a Comanche attack.
Played to the emotionally raw hilt by Rosamund Pike, this grief-numbed widow is both a victim and an angel of compassion and mercy, who lassos courage in the most devastating circumstances.
The on-screen pairing of the two British actors elevates Cooper’s film.
Captain Joseph J Blocker (Bale) has so much blood on his hands, one antagonistic journalist quips: “Is it true you took more scalps than Sitting Bull?”
A military man of few words and questionable deeds, Blocker begrudgingly escorts his sworn enemy – Cheyenne tribal chef Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) – from a prison cell at Fort Berringer in New Mexico to the Valley Of The Bears in Montana.
Yellow Hawk is gravely ill and wishes to be at one with his ancestors, surrounded by family.
Blocker shepherds the Cheyenne prisoners south, accompanied by Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), Lieutenant Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), Corporal Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors) and Private Philippe DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet).
En route, the posse befriends Rosalie Quaid (Pike), whose husband and children have been slaughtered by Comanches, and accepts a new commission to escort murderer Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster) to the gallows.
The condemned man and Blocker have history. “We both know it could just as easily be you in these chains,” growls Wills.
Tension percolates between prisoners and escorts as they go through Comanche territory.
Hostiles trots when it could gallop, allowing resentment and rivalries to fester against the backdrop of the Mountain States, which provide a breathtaking canvas for Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi.
The roughly hewn beauty of these locations contrasts with the darkness that takes root in the hearts of men, for whom the violence of a gunfight is second nature.
The west wasn’t won – it was brutally, forcibly taken, and never returned.