Native Combat

After his country music debut Crazy Heart (2009), Scott Cooper has unerringly explored violence in the American psyche in films like Rust Belt drama Out of the Furnace (2013) and his real-life gangster tale Black Mass (2015). That interest in the blood-soaked land of the free continues with Hostiles, an elegiac, evocative western that stems from an un-produced screenplay by the late Donald Stewart, who wrote Patriot Games and The Hunt For Red October.

It begins with one of the most brutal scenes you’ll see all year, as innocent mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) barely escapes with her life as Comanche Indians slaughter her husband and young children. It’s a troubling sequence, though Cooper is not a director who revels in gratuitous death here. Rather, there’s a poetic and political punch to Hostiles that is far more arresting than scenes of bloodshed.

Set in 1892, the film stars Christian Bale, reuniting with Cooper after Out of the Furnace. He plays Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a US cavalry officer on the verge of retirement who is ordered against his will to escort a dying Cheyenne, Chief Yellowhawk (Wes Studi), from Arizona to his Montana homeland, the Valley of the Bears. His hatred of the Cheyenne comes from years of fighting against them, losing good men.

Treating the aged Yellowhawk with contempt, Blocker’s journey is a gradual one towards enlightenment. Partly this comes from meeting the shattered Rosalie during their trek, lighting a spark inside him. With Pike and Bale both in admirably restrained form, Cooper never overstates any romantic feelings that Blocker harbours; indeed, there will be blood before there is love in this tale of the Old West.

Featuring a melancholic Max Richter score and a robust support cast, including Peter Mullan and Cooper’s Black Mass alumni Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons, there’s an authenticity to Hostiles, right down to Bale speaking lines in Cheyenne. But it’s the contemporary resonances that really hit home; a story that deals with racial tension and divisions, it could so easily apply to modern-day America.

True, it can be argued that the Native American characters are given short shrift in a script that favours the white leads. It’s a flaw that perhaps stops Hostiles from nearing greatness, but Cooper has still once again proved he’s a director of considerable talent. In a genre that has fallen from favour over the years, this is a superb western.

Hostiles is now in cinemas. For more information, visit: www.hostilesmovie.com.

James Mottram

Credits:
1. Still from Hostiles.