“Sometimes, I yearn for the finality of death” suicidal widow Rosalie Quaid, portrayed by Rosamund Pike, confesses during director Scott Cooper’s misery western Hostiles. It isn’t hard to empathise with this statement - not only have we been subjected to the brutal murders of her young children moments after being introduced to her, we’ve also had to endure the long, painful slog that followed this nihilistically effective opening. The sweet release of death is likely no different to the sheer lifelessness of this film, and will also come with the added benefit of not having to endure Cooper’s dull, stilted attempt at a Western for a single second longer.
Joking aside, this isn’t to say Hostiles is a terrible film; the performances from both Pike (one of the finest in her career) and Christian Bale are uniformly terrific, while cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi puts in the best work of his career capturing the harsh beauty of the desolate landscape - something he’d previously excelled at with his cinematography for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. But the film feels less than the sum of its parts due to Cooper’s detached directing style, which refuses to connect with the raw emotional journeys or the dense historical themes reverberating in the background of this story. For a narrative as depressing as this, a calculated stylistic coldness is the wrong route to take instead of being engaging, it feels like artificial grit, attempting to disturb the audience but failing to do so by never attempting to engage them in the first place.
Set in 1892, Christian Bale stars as cavalry officer Captain Joseph J Blocker, who is on the cusp of retirement but forced into one final job. Under the orders of the President, he has to escort a Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their native lands- something he refuses to do, until he is informed that his pension will be stripped from him if he fails to comply. Putting a team together (including Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalamet), they set out on the trail, and on the way, pick up grieving widow Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family had been murdered by a Comanche tribe days earlier. Surprisingly, what follows could not be described as a laugh riot.
On paper, a narrative about a man learning to overcome his violent prejudices against Native Americans while journeying cross country with them suggests a bizarre cross between Dances with Wolves and Bone Tomahawk. Unfortunately, it doesn’t possess the humanity of the former (as cheesy and easy to deride as that film may be), nor does it seem particular interested in staging its violent sequences with any sense of directorial flair. There’s an odd disconnect in the staging of violence here, instead of seeming gruesome, Cooper’s detachment from the story itself means harrowing sequences fail to muster even the slightest of gasps. It’s hard to care about the dire circumstances of the characters when the film never gives you the slightest suggestion that they’re worth investing in.
In another director’s hands, it isn’t hard to imagine this being an emotionally investing take on a classic Western story, somewhat akin to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Cooper’s screenplay is adapted from an unproduced manuscript Donald Stewart wrote prior to his death in 1999; dating back to the eighties, prior to his work on the Jack Ryan franchise (beginning with Hunt for the Red October), it’s easy to imagine a more engaging, audience friendly take on this narrative that was never to be. The contents of the original drafts of this story may be unknown, but it’s hard to imagine them being as dull and as ceaselessly miserable as Cooper’s adaptation.