“Hostiles” is a funereal, downbeat Western conjured up by a filmmaker with only a passing acquaintance with the genre.
Interminably slow of foot, filled with static, anachronistic and politically correct sermons performed in a whisper, with bloody-minded outbursts interrupting the beautiful scenery photographed like a cut-rate cable TV movie, it is an utterly inept outing from the director who got Jeff Bridges his Oscar.
I love this genre, perhaps more than any other. Hell, I’m reading a new John Ford/John Wayne director-and-his-muse biography right this minute. Any movie with horses, Comanches, sagebrush and six-guns is right up my alley. And while there’s a lot to be said for genre-busting entries in the horse opera vein, I caught myself hating Scott Cooper’s muddle of a movie, more often than not.
The conventional “Searchers” opening depicts an Indian raid, a remote New Mexico farm family slaughtered for their horses. Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie Quaid, who sees her husband scalped and children gunned down right in front of her, including the baby she cradles in her arms. She alone survives, traumatized until the movie abruptly decides she isn’t.
Christian Bale is Cavalry Captain Joe Blocker, about to muster out, a veteran Indian fighter who has absorbed much of the savagery of his “uncivilized” foes. We meet him as his troop brutally drags Apache escapees back to the fort where they were being held prisoner.
His commanding officer (Stephen Lang) may tolerate it, but the sneering, elitist Harper’s Weekly reporter/photographer (Bill Camp) who inexplicably sits in on the CO’s meetings mocks Blocker for his savagery and inhumanity. That’s the set-up for Blocker’s “final” assignment. He’s to take an aged, cancer-riddled Indian chief (the great Wes Studi) “home” to Montana to die.
“That cutthroat,” Blocker hisses.
“That’s an order,” from President Benjamin Harrison, the CO barks back.
“I’m afraid I ain’t obeyin’ it.”
Of course he is/he will. But what we’ve just seen is the most insubordinate exchange in the history of cavalry movies, one that grates as much as the “You know Wilks here, from Harper’s Weekly,” introduction.
That’s followed by Blocker assembling an idiotically composed unit to escort two Apache warriors (Adam Beach of “Flags of Our Fathers” is Chief Yellow Hawk’s son), a daughter, daughter-in-law and a son. A captain commands a green West Point lieutenant (Jesse Plemons), old comrade sergeant (Rory Cochrane) and African American corporal (Jonathan Majors) and a single, Quebecois private (Timothee Chalamet). Boy, the hierarchy in that only leaves one, maybe two soldiers to do all the work.
They “rescue” Rosalie from her burned cabin, endure ambushes, kidnappings, alterations in their mission (Bale’s “3:10 to Yuma” co-star Ben Foster is a deserter to be escorted back to fort) and a lot of blood-letting, all to get this “cutthroat” and his family from New Mexico to Montana. You know at some point that the shackled natives will have to be freed to save the racist troopers, the one hoary Western convention writer-director Cooper makes sure to honor.
Studi, a regal screen presence since “Dances With Wolves” and “Last of the Mohicans,” acquits himself with honor, though everybody speaking the Cheyenne tongue used here (Q’orianka Kilcher of “The New World” plays his daughter-in-law), including Bale, sounds out the words so slowly as to make one look for the cue cards.
Bale’s performance is dialed down so low his anachronistic “Deadwood” F-bombs barely register through his period-perfect mustache. Pike delivers gulping, gasping shock at the traumas visited upon her, which her character abruptly forgets the minute she gets a change of clothes at Fort Winslow, Colorado. Chalamet (an Oscar nominee for “Call Me By Your Name”) has a French Canadian accent that comes and goes at will.
And Cochrane stands out in the rest of the cast via his mannered, tic-ridden, eyes-shifting line readings, hamming one usually has to visit a community theater to enjoy.
But it’s Cooper’s script that screams “No Researchers Needed” at every turn. Col. Biggs (Lang) warns them to get underway before “the monsoon.” In New Mexico.
One and all speak of Custer as if they knew him. Foster’s character and Bale’s have history, remembering the free-fire slaughter of the Wounded Knee Massacre as “those were the days.” President Benjamin Harrison, who gave them their “Release Yellow Hawk” orders, took office a year before Wounded Knee, and only served one term. So, um, how long ago were those “good ol’days?”
A cardinal sin of such movies is staging a shootout featuring a hail of bullets where nobody re-loads. Such as what we see here.
And if the greatest Western of them all, “The Searchers,” was only two hours long and Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” was just over that, how come Cooper can’t get through his Western gambol in under 2:14?
Oh, right. When nobody involved has any sense of urgency about their mission, when every few moments somebody feels the need to stop and SLOWLY expound on “We took their land from them” and the like, when one and all have to quickly change their socio-ethnic worldview over the course of the picture, your movie quickly outstays its welcome. And then some.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, and language
Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Stephen Lang, Ben Foster, Michael Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher
Credits:Written and directed by Scott Cooper. An Entertainment Studios release.
Running time: 2:14