Earlier this year I posted a top 10 focusing on modern westerns in anticipation of a new film that looked promising and fun. That film was “Hostiles” and I finally got the chance to see it last night and I have to say, my opinions on this film does not match the seemingly overwhelming praise major critics have given it. “Hostiles” is an okay film that makes some harsh, and honest, statements about humanity in general but doesn’t quite create the smooth and satisfying movie experience I was hoping for. It has some great moments and some aspects that made me cringe. So is it more bad than good, or more mediocre than masterpiece? This is my review of “Hostiles”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
“Hostiles” is set in 1982 in the American west and finds Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), an American soldier known for his ability and tactics in hunting down “redskins”, being charged by presidential order to escort infamous war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal land in Montana as Yellow Hawk is approaching death from cancer. Hesitant at first due to his disdain for Yellow Hawk’s past actions, Blocker argues he is a better man because his killing of Indians was simply “doing his job”. With a hand-picked company of characters the journey is briefly sidelined by the discovery of the burned down Quaid home where the soldiers discover the only survivor of a massacre at the hands of Comanche, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Quaid joins the party and the soldiers are eventually also charged with transporting a wanted deserter for hanging. As the parade makes its way through the west they encounter all kinds of road blocks and hostiles of all colors in a story geared towards exploring the harsh realities of humanity in general in the old west.
Here’s where I’m probably going to differ greatly for many more experienced critics of this film. The acting in “Hostiles” is terribly inconsistent for me. Christian Bale, who I actually enjoy very much as an actor, was by far the biggest offender because he is such a talented force and yet this entire movie his performance comes off as awkward, dry and, at times, forced. That’s not for lack of a good dialogue either because the movie sports a decent if imperfect script. Bale tries to own his role as a scarred and judgmental soldier but litters the role with clichés that feel unnecessary or unnatural. There are hints to a deeper, more subtle and brilliant performance, in fact that’s kind of a theme of the film as you’ll see later on in this review, but Bale just never comes close to the quality the character deserves. From screaming to the heavens to standoffs with enemies and philosophical conversations with both friends and foes nothing is smooth or sincere in this film in general and it’s sad because Bale gets some of the best lines in the whole movie and they all fall flat with either overacting or a lack of heart.
The same can be said for nearly every other performance in the film. Truth be told the acting in general was the biggest reason I had a hard time investing in “Hostiles” and the sad part is it’s not like the cast is incapable of doing well with what they were given. Take Rosamund Pike for example. Her role perfectly sums up how confusingly the performances in this film turned out to be. At times her portrayal of a suicidal woman who lost her family to an unforgiving war party of Comanche feels brilliant and layered at times, but at other times it feels dry, uninteresting and flawed. One moment you feel for her and can appreciate the heartbreak she has experienced, but then the next she just seems off and very bland. It’s actually quite fascinating really. Each performance in this film feels almost too held back, like the actors wanted to go all out, and at times did, but were told to take it back a notch and couldn’t find the right balance.
Regardless of where you look in this film nearly every performance is just flawed and uninvested. The only real bright spots are the Native American characters. Wes Studi is joined by Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher and others as Yellow Hawk and his family. Considering their few lines, they are actually the best part of this movie in terms of the performances. The fact that they choose their words and interactions carefully actually seems to match the more subtle tone this film felt more suited for. The Native American characters come off as true and sincere overpowering pretty much every other character on screen in every scene. I’m not sure if I would have liked the film any more if all the performances were just as subtle, but I will say the Native Americans are the most believable part of the film and when you consider that we spend most of our time seeing the American soldiers interact and actually silence their Native American brethren you can understand my frustration when the characters that get the most screen time are worse than the underlings they see as beneath them. We were stripped of better performances and, essentially, a better film because of inconsistent acting and confusing tone that only a select few characters managed to rise above.
As I said, “Hostiles” has its moments and glimmers of something much better than what it is. The visuals first off are absolutely stunning. The locations used for the setting and backdrop are top notch choices and look absolutely beautiful. There’s also a smooth transition as the movie begins on the desert plains of New Mexico, a dry baron wasteland where the characters are at dark points in their lives, and slowly progresses to Colorado and into Montana, more brightly colored and peaceful locations that match the brighter outlooks the main characters embrace near the story’s end. We get the chance to explore some of the more captivating sceneries of the American west from today, let alone yesterday. To that end this movie at least looks great and the backdrops seem to have real purpose for the narrative. The set pieces also compliment it’s 1890s era setting and the time period where it takes place. So at least its got that working for it.
I can also appreciate the narrative which focuses heavily on the hostility of man in general, not just natives versus settlers. Everyone is painted as a villain in some way in this movie, from the Comanches to the white American land owners and even the main characters themselves are proven to be flawed and bending the boundaries of what is a human and what is a monster. I really wish these themes were handled much better because “Hostiles” has a lot to say, but even in the cloud of mediocrity and odd tonal choices that hangs over the film the general theme still holds true and is presented loud and clear through brutal, unexpected, and delightfully depressing events that play out in different parts of the movie.
The best part of this film by far however is its opening and closing confrontations, which, at risk of entering slight spoiler territory, mirror each other nicely to drive home the above mentioned theme of the hostility of man in general. Both scenes are violent and satisfying with the opening scene specifically being especially brutal and a great start to the film. In the same way that the performances of the Native Americans showed how much more subtle this film as a whole could have been, the opening violence shows just how much more intense the overall project could have become as well. The problem is there’s no balance or melding of the two different tonal approaches. Instead we get a film that is stuck between two and seems confused as to its own identity. That brings me to the next section…
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
As I said above the biggest problems with “Hostiles” is its confusing tone. At times it’s insanely hard to watch due to its no-holds-barred depiction of violence, but at other times its slow and melancholy especially when it focuses on more macabre and human elements of its characters and story. It never truly finds a safe middle point and tries to meld numerous subplots, forced character development and backstory and balance grief with excitement to the point where I wasn’t really sure what kind of film I was watching at times. That kind of chaos may have been purposely inserted into the movie to reflect the unsure nature of the times, but it didn’t feel that way. It simply felt like a pieced together product.
“Hostiles”, to put it bluntly, is a movie without identity and that probably played into why the performances from otherwise extremely talented actors comes off as inconsistent and offbeat. The movie cuts from stories and conversations to new stories and interactions abruptly and even the most meaningful of dialogue seems to be lost in the mix. There were a few tender moments in this film I couldn’t get into simply because they just happened out of the blue, without warning or obvious purpose. Some characters were involved in some great humans moments of the story early on, but they only truly get development of who they are later in the story which makes their earlier moments standout but only in hindsight. At the risk of being repetitive it bears repeating. In terms of tone, storytelling and pace “Hostiles” is just a mess.
Then there’s the obvious show horned in moments of cliché drama and irony. Writer, producer and director Scott Cooper, who proved himself a worthy filmmaker with movies like “Black Mass and “Crazy Heart”, seems to have had his heart in the right place, but it’s almost like he tried WAY too hard to create an awards season quality work but the film suffered as a result. We get all the normal dramatic clichés, including suicidal moments, tragic backstories and a few “screaming to the heavens” scenes that were just oh so laughable to be honest but there’s no payoff. Awards pandering might NOT have been the goal of Cooper, but it certainly feels like it and this is no Oscar worthy work from my perspective. The irony is instead of telling its own story and balancing emotion to own its in-your-face message of man’s own brutality towards itself, “Hostiles” tries too hard to be great and only ends up being barely good as a result. It lacks control and conviction and robs us of what could have been a much deeper or much more brutally honest story than what we got.
As you can tell I was frustrated by “Hostiles” because, well it’s a mess. It’s not unwatchable by any means, but for me it’s uneven, noncommittal to any sort of consistent tone and lacks a lot of heart. It makes some very worthy statements about human violence, painting no specific person but rather man in general as the villains of the world we live in, but it’s all lost in a pool of clichés that provides no real payoff in the end. There are signs of a much better film and at times the actors do own their opportunities to shine, but the dry presentation and lack of consistency combined with the exact opposite extreme an no real middle ground to blend them together prevents the film’s noble message and what could have been some pretty incredible performances to shine in the least. It’s over the top in some places, and absolutely boring in others with very little effort to capturing any consistent tone or feel. “Hostiles”, in many ways, is almost like watching several much better films cut together to make an attempted Oscar-worthy hit. Still, the opening and closing scenes and it’s effective underlying message of humanity in general as the hostiles make it at least somewhat enjoyable and worthy of viewing. This is not the great modern western experience I hoped to see and while it could have been SO much worse, it also could have and should have been a whole lot better.