(Image courtesy of Entertainment Studios)

(Image courtesy of Entertainment Studios)


Scoot Cooper’s grizzled western Hostiles opens with a quote from novelist D.H. Lawrence that reads:

"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.  It has never yet melted.”

Those four adjectives and labels assigned by the English writer ring true for the late 19th century historical era he observed and also for the film itself you will watch.  Each of those traits are embedded within Cooper’s difficult and impressive film.

Opening with a horrifying scene of a family slaughtered and a homestead razed by rogue Comanche criminals, Hostiles sets a tone of merciless hardship.  It immediately mirrors that set piece with a parallel scene showing a squad of American soldiers harassing Native American captives.  The American mistreatment may be come short of the murderous death dealt by the Comanches, but, the moral behavior is barely better quarter.  We immediately see that we are no better and the epitome of that Lawrence quote.  The year is 1892 and this is the brutal landscape of America being described by Lawrence then and Cooper now.

In Fort Berringer, New Mexico, Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Oscar winner Christian Bale) and his tight-knit regulars have finished a stint of harrowing Indian battles on the frontier.  Joseph is flanked by two long-time and trusted partners, the weathered Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Argo character actor Rory Cochrane) and the religious buffalo soldier Corporal Henry Woodson (newcomer Jonathan Majors).  The crew’s successful and reputation, one built from over 20 years of service together, is a dark and sternly feared one.  

Ignoring any furlough, Blocker has been tasked by his commanding officer Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang of Avatar) to lead a prisoner escort.  The detainee is the aging chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi of Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves), a notoriously fierce former warrior.  He is accompanied by his family, including his son Black Hawk (Windtalkers star Adam Beach), daughter-in-law (The New World’s Q'orianka Kilcher), and their children.

LESSON #1: CHANGING JUDGEMENTS-- With the prevailing politics and current social sentiment urging an end to military initiatives against Native Americans, Yellow Hawk has been granted a special reprieve because he is terminally ill with cancer.  Dying or not, Joseph knows what kind of man Yellow Hawk was.  From one adversary to another, a killer knows a killer and common ground to combat labels appears impossible.   

Bound by duty, Blocker accepts the task and begins the trail north to the Valley of the Bears tribal reservation lands in Montana.  Joining this trek will be a trio of green new recruits, played by emerging character actor Jesse Plemons, Call Me By Your Name breakout Timothée Chalamet, and singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham.  Along the way, Blocker and his company encounter and pick up two new additions, Rosalie Quaid (Gone Girl Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike), the sole survivor of that opening settler attack, and one more military prisoner, the disgraced Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster, doing another rendition of his speechifying twitchy act).  

LESSON #2: THE PRECIOUS RARITY OF KINDNESS-- Through this long ride, the isolation and the stoicism of Lawrence’s quote come to light in Hostiles.  These are God-fearing people who are far from angels themselves.  They have buried too many loved ones and friends, question if their savior is blind to the violence of the times, and want a better way of life.  The strangers and enemies next to them are all that break the solitude.  Rosalie’s arrival changes decorum and the emotional challenges, shifting Joe Blocker from a caustic cusser of rage to a stern guardian of strength.  Slowly, hate morphs into earned respect on this journey laced with danger, where a simple “thank you” can speak volumes.

LESSON #3: SHARING LOSS, REGRETS, AND THE FINALITY OF DEATH-- The excellent acting coalesces these blackened hearts as they wax on the things they’ve seen.  Led by Bale and his Method dedication to the craft, the ensemble performers all receive their moments to expound on providence, duty, their failings, and inner darkness.  Every man deserves a good death and cracks in moral fibers, both positive and negative, define characters and seal fates.  Though purposefully minimalist in delivery where some soliloquies drift with the wind, there are moments where you hang on every word or unspoken glint of pain.

Adapted from a manuscript by the late Oscar-winning Missing screenwriter Donald E. Stewart,   Hostiles is period-piece prestige for director Scott Cooper’s fourth feature film following Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, and Black Mass.  Ever-present insects and rustling chirps join a pensive dirge from composer Max Richter (Miss Sloane) to occupy the wide vistas shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Spotlight) working his third Cooper film.  In her second strong work of 2017 after Suburbicon, Jenny Eagen’s costume design is another noteworthy quality that gives this film tangible constitution.  

Far better than competent across a heavy 135 minutes, Hostiles is an unflinchingly grim and humorless film to watch.  A methodically challenging viewing experience awaits those unprepared for dispiriting bleakness.  The harrowing raw violence and melancholic emotions rattle this film’s bones and will remain wearisome for many to embrace.  For what this movie is meant to address and accomplish, grim or not, those levels are dialed in properly by Cooper and his collaborators.  Mentored by Robert Duvall, Cooper’s films are growing in scale as well as their precision.  Hostiles may not be an immediate western classic, but the film counts as an extremely strong display of the filmmaker’s boundless potential.  Mark my words, the right project is coming for Scott Cooper that will make us all take greater notice.

LESSON #4: WHAT REALLY KILLS?-- Circling back one more time to Lawrence, Hostiles is not shy about the indifferent reality of killing.  The campaign takes it to a near Agatha Christie-level, where anyone could be on the receiving end of a knife blade, bullet, or piercing arrow.  Those pieces of metal may do the deed, but the film’s thematic tone skirts with the notion that ideals kill people as deftly as weapons.  It is certainly cud to chew on with Hostiles.