Movie Beat: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike not enough to save “Hostiles”
By Jenniffer Wardell
Rated R for strong violence and language
Screenplay by Scott Cooper, based on the manuscript by Donald E. Stewart
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Wes Studi, David Midthunder, Jonathan Majors and more
Grade: One and a half stars
If it wasn’t for the overwhelming hypocrisy, “Hostiles” might be a pretty good movie.
It certainly has an excellent cast, with particularly fantastic acting from Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane and Wes Studi (at least, when the movie bothers to give him lines). It even manages to bring the Western back to the screen with the kind of grittiness that helped “The Revenant” garner so much critical acclaim in 2015, a technique that should probably be adopted by any other director brave enough to try and tackle a Western.
Unfortunately, the movie’s supposed message of a white man learning to recognize the humanity of those who aren’t his color is constantly hampered by the movie’s refusal to do the same. Not only does the script set Bale’s character up with a wildly flawed argument to justify his hatred of Native Americans, but the movie itself tends to treat its Native American characters as more props than anything. Rather than be moved by the great acting happening onscreen, I spent most of the movie wanting to yell at writer/director Scott Cooper.
The movie, based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart (who also probably deserves to be yelled at) starts with Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker’s efforts to pacify the Native Americans in the western U.S. in 1892. He hates Native Americans a lot, so when his superior officer tells him to escort longtime prisoner Chief Yellow Hawk back to his tribal lands to die he nearly quits on the spot. After his superior officer threatens to take his pension, he reluctantly agrees.
Bale tries valiantly to give Blocker depth and nuance, and the degree to which he succeeds is entirely to the actor’s credit. But even he can’t overcome a basic problem inherent in the plot – he hates Native Americans because they killed his fellow soldiers, but he completely ignores the fact that he and his fellow soldiers were out there in the first place to kill and imprison the Native Americans. The first time we see Blocker, he and his men are herding a Native American man like a stray cow, and there’s a conversation later about slitting Native American throats and how much they miss it. But the movie still expects us to (at least at the beginning) feel that Blocker is justified in his anger.
Rory Cochrane, as Master Sgt. Thomas Metz, strikes the balance far more successfully. Cochrane makes the character a little bit feral, one of those soldiers who’s been eaten up by war, and the later arc of his penitence is soul-deep and profound enough to break him. Cochrane makes the character’s journey wrenching, though to the script it’s barely a footnote. Pike is also excellent as a woman who lost her whole family to a Native American attack, shocky and terrified and trying to die at every opportunity.
Sadly, the Native American actors are rarely given a chance to reach the same level, since the movie sees them merely as tools to facilitate the emotional development of the various white characters. Studi manages to overcome the barrier simply through his own poise and dignity, but the movie cuts him back at every opportunity.
All together, the results are mostly deeply frustrating. If you’re going to make a message movie, Hollywood, make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot while you’re doing it.
(Photo © Entertainment Studios)