Opening your film with what will be the most intense or disturbing scene in the movie is risky. It can affect the intensity of your climax later and it puts the audience at unrest right from the get go. But that is exactly writer/director Scott Cooper's intention. Hostiles opens with one of the most violent scenes I can recall outside of the war and horror genres. It will make you uneasy and have you wondering, "what exactly have I signed up for?" This story takes place in a violent world; a world where even the best of men are dangerous men with blood on their hands. Cooper wants you to understand that, and to feel that from the start. And he accomplishes this with great precision.
Hostiles follows renowned Army Captain Joseph Baker (Christian Bale) who is assigned the task of transporting a dying Native American Chief (Yellow Hawk played by Wes Studi) to his homeland in Montana where he can die in peace. This detail also includes transporting the Chief's family which includes his son (Adam Beach), daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson. Baker does not want this assignment. Yellow Hawk has been a war prisoner for some time, captured no doubt by Baker himself. The two men have seen each other commit violent acts against each other's soldiers and friends. There is understandable animosity between them and despite Baker's insistence that he does not want this mission, he has little choice in the matter if he wants to retire from the Army with his record unscathed and his pension intact. As his commanding officer, Colonel Briggs (Stephen Lang) tells him, "This will be done. And it will be done by you."
Not long after the Captain, his small team of soldiers and Yellow Hawk's family start their journey, they find Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman in dire straits after just witnessing the murder of her entire family and the burning of her home at the hands of another Native American tribe. Baker and his men know they must take this woman with them, not just to protect her from further attack and the elements, but to protect her from herself. All of this takes place in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The rest I will leave you to discover on your own.
For a movie that runs nearly a quarter past two hours, it is a wonder how it never drags. Had the film been released more in line with the awards season time frame, editor Tom Cross may well have seen his way to a few ceremonies. As would cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who has made a film so gorgeous that even the close-up shots look amazing. When it comes to the beautiful landscape, this is probably the best-looking Western since Open Range. The score by Max Richter is very subtle, it fits the tone of the film perfectly, never feeling intrusive, but not unnoticed.
Every actor in this film is giving one of their finest performances. I'd go as far as to say this is Christian Bale's best performance since The Machinist, which is saying a lot since he's given so many great performances in between. Rosamund Pike's portrayal of a tortured soul feels authentic and heartbreaking. Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons and Ben Foster all have opportunities to shine in smaller roles. Cochrane in particular shines as a soldier whose life of killing has finally taken its toll mentally and physically.
Hostiles may just come across as depressing to some viewers. It is dark and violent and there is little levity to speak of. There is so much death on screen that at times the movie seems like it is a story about death. And in a way it is. The acts of violence in the film happen quickly, but the repercussions of those acts are dwelt upon. We bear witness to the effects of death in its various forms. As such the film becomes more than just a story about death, but one about our reconciliation with mortality; our understanding of an outcome that is inevitable for us all one way or another.
Scott Cooper has created one of the best films of 2017. A haunting, emotional Western that you will not soon forget. A film that looks this good and that is this emotionally engrossing deserves to be seen on the big screen. And a film this well-made deserves an audience. So get to it. 9/10