Washed-up country singers and burdened blue-collar urban dwellers: distinctly American textures run through the career of writer-director Scott Cooper (‘Crazy Heart’). It makes sense that he would eventually take a stab at the western genre. And ‘Hostiles’ is a harsh, slow-burning frontier epic with muscle and heart. On paper, the plot – a tale of white men’s unforgivable sins against the indigenous people of America – sounds dangerously clichéd. But along with his co-writer Donald Stewart, Cooper finds fresh, undeniable relevance in late nineteenth-century horrors.
Set nearly three decades after the era portrayed in ‘Dances with Wolves’, the film follows Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale, quiet with tense authority), a prominent army captain tasked, against his wishes, to accompany terminally ill Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family on a journey between New Mexico and Montana. They are joined by shell-shocked Rosalie (Rosamund Pike in a career-best performance), the only survivor of a family murdered by the Comanche. With bodies lost at every turn, these unlikely fellow travellers come to realise that their survival depends on unity.
Stunningly filmed by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi in the expansive tradition of the genre, ‘Hostiles’ romanticises vast landscapes and crimson-hued horizons. At times, you’ll find yourself wanting more of the perspective of the Cheyenne, but Cooper still does right by his story of historical reconciliation, plausibly charting Blocker’s moral transformation. The film’s disarming finale packs an earned, radiantly optimistic punch.