Hostiles comes on strong. It’s the kind of movie that will either repel or engross you from the first moments. It’s unflinchingly violent and relentlessly unhurried in equal measure. The vast emptiness even more imposing than the unfriendly, unknown figures lurking in all that darkness, Hostiles marries the sensibilities of The Revenant and Red Dead Redemption with a twist of latent humanity. It’s 1892 and we follow Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), a legendary military man who has spent his life waging war on Native Americans, on a mission to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory. It should come as no surprise that Blocker doesn’t want to be there. And he’s not particularly kind to the man he should be escorting, a dying man who wants to see his home one more time.
Much has been made of Bale’s performance, and indeed, it’s the best he’s been in some while. He’s all brooding intensity and duty and grudges long-held, but he also lets his eyes betray something more: questions, fear, reluctance. It’s a transfixing turn, and that’s a benefit to the more plodding moments of the film. He gets an assist here from the rest of the cast, which includes Timothee Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster and a number of other familiar faces. But the greatest credit goes to Rosamund Pike, going against type as a distraught recent widower who takes up with the band of army men after they discover her in the wake of a tragedy. Pike, and her Native American counterparts, Tanaya Beatty and Q’orianka Kilcher give us a look at women in this world that is none too commonly made available. The script delivers the bulk of this work to Pike, as a love interest and the force capable of shaking Blocker out of his ways. But though it is treated as secondary to Bale’s journey, this new layer brings incredible richness to a familiar story.
That story, a man bound by duty, set to a task he doesn’t believe in, but ultimately changed by that task, is a classic western trajectory. Now, the tasks the crew encounters in the course of carrying out that first task are classic Red Dead Redemption. Favor leads on to favor and it takes going five miles out of the way to make one mile of progress. That slow, yet relentless march toward success (or something like it) highlights the cruelty of time, the indifference of the wilderness and the challenges of the time.
Hostiles is a violent, bare and deliberate piece of filmmaking. It doesn’t dazzle in the moment, but it does linger in the mind. You won’t soon forget these turns from Pike and Bale, nor will you be able to shake the emotions of the piece. And while that may not evoke the same adoration other friendlier entries do, Hostiles remains a movie I won’t soon forget, and that counts for quite a lot.