Scott Cooper burst onto the indie scene with 2009’s Crazy Heart, the film that finally won Jeff Bridges his long awaited Academy Award. After another successful indie film, Out of the Furnace, Cooper made his move into bigger budget film making with Black Mass. The story of notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger generated a lot of Oscar buzz before its premiere, but unfortunately would eventually fizzle out of contention.
Hostiles is Cooper’s first film since Black Mass, and reunites him with Out of the Furnace star Christian Bale. Hostiles is set in the harsh, rugged landscape of the American west. Cooper sets up this world with a brutal opening scene depicting a frontier family being attacked and murdered. However the main story involves a well respected Army Officer reluctantly escorting a Native American Chief and his family back to their land in Montana.
Christian Bale as always puts in a good performance as Captain Joseph Blocker. His character has been hardened by his life in the army and the environment where he serves. Blocker is consumed by his hatred for the Native American “enemy” that his cruelty in the early stages may turn off some viewers. His commitment to his country has left him with little to show for it, but he’s alive, which is more than can be said for others. Unfortunately once Blocker begins to sympathize with the Native American family he is escorting, it doesn’t feel earned.
Unfortunately the majority of the other actors are wasted in their roles. Rosamund Pike as a frontier woman who has lost everything, Jesse Plemons as a new West Point graduate, and Ben Foster as a Officer on his way to be hanged. It’s not that any of them give bad performances, they just have nothing to do.
Unfortunately Cooper’s depiction of Native Americans also leaves a lot to be desired. We get two examples throughout Hostiles. The first is a bloodthirsty gang, hell bent on destruction and death. The other is the family Blocker is escorting. We get a little of the family’s background, the Chief (Wes Studi) was once a great adversary of Blocker which leads to the tension between the two characters. However, Cooper does not do enough to flesh out either group, so we are left with one note characters that are hard to like or fear.
Hostiles real strength is the cinematography. The wide landscapes call back to the Golden Age of the Hollywood Western. However the film relies on the beautiful imagery too much. Much of Hostiles is repetitive scenes of the group huddled around camp fires, and traveling on horseback. The occasional outburst of violence breaks up this repetition, and is mostly handled well.
The lack of a real antagonist is also a problem. They show up, are dealt with quickly, mostly off screen, and our group move on to the next one. You start to ask who are the hostiles Cooper is referring to. Perhaps the environment is the hostile, but this metaphor isn’t delivered well.
Cooper appears to have all the tools to be a great director and make truly great films. He consistently gets excellent performances from his actors. The production design and cinematography is also beautiful. However Cooper seems to make a few key creative decisions that prevent his films from reaching the next level. Unfortunately Hostiles falls into this category.