Film in review: “Hostiles”


Blake Gasner, film reporter

This is that time of the year where we see “Oscar Bait” films (as I like to coin them) flooding movie theaters everywhere. You often have your stereotypical historical epics, along with your quintessential social dramas, that push and question controversial material, both of which fit snuggly into this category that the “former” academy loved to acknowledge come Oscar season. These types of movies are no doubt important and should be recognized if they are actually awesome pictures. Thankfully however, the days of these movies receiving an inherent bias from the Oscar voters based simply off them fitting this mold are over. Ever since the Academy revised its voting structure, the “Best Picture” race is becoming more and more exciting to the point where in 2018, we have one of the most unique “Best Picture” races of all time. Sure, there is an obvious ignorance towards grander blockbuster franchise films like this year’s “Logan,” Blade Runner 2049” and “Wonder Woman,” but it is undeniable that the Oscar ceremony is progressing for the better.

Still though, studios struggle to adapt to the changing times and continue to make movies that fit the “Oscar Bait” mold; the newly released “Hostiles” is an example of this. “Hostiles” is an American period western, starring Christian Bale as protagonist Captain Joseph Blocker. Blocker is a veteran of extensive military action against Native Americans on the frontier, who is tasked with escorting one of his greatest battle adversaries, Yellow Hawk, a chief responsible for the deaths of many of Blocker’s own men, to a reservation in Montana. The plot is interesting alone, as it tackles concepts such as pure hatred and the ensuing violence that is regurgitated as a result, along with redemption and forgiveness. The ensemble cast that is featured over the course of the film consists of a number of great actors as well: Rosmund Pike (“Gone Girl”), Wes Studi (“Dances with Wolves”), Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused”), Jesse Plemmons (“Friday Night Lights”), Timotheé Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”), Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”), and Stephen Lang (“Avatar”). When a film has an emotional narrative as “Hostiles,” you expect the characters that are experiencing this intense emotion to leap off screen and share that emotion with you, but there are several problems that stall them from doing this.

We hear about several deep-rooted relationships throughout the duration of this movie, some notoriously bad and some monumentally personal, but are still treated to very little screen evidence of these relationships. The film tells you that Bale’s Captain Blocker and Studi’s Yellow Hawk HATE each other and then does not explore the dynamic any further aside from a few scenes involving the two speaking Yellow Hawk’s tribal language, and by a few scenes, I mean only a FEW scenes. It’s very minimal and also the most essential relationship to understand throughout the film. This same critique stretches around to the entire cast.

Ambition resounds out of “Hostiles” script as it attempts to introduce pivotal characters late in the film and enhance their place in the story with arcs and interactions of their own, but this takes too much away from a story that we are already not as invested in in the first place. These complaints are all examples of “Hostiles” flat and unfulfilled script. It’s still ambitious in that it tries to explore multiple characters, but at the same times it’s unambitious in that its selected method of doing so is through clichés about faith and hatred. On top of the script, the overall pacing of “Hostiles” is simply unbearable.

I can’t say I’ve had to begrudgingly force myself through a movie that’s only two hours and 13 minutes before. That type of impatience is often only tied to epics of proportions above three hours. It’s safe for me to say this is a direct consequence of awful pacing. Long uninterrupted shots are one of my personal favorite devices for emphasizing a film’s realistic nature. It’s obvious that “Hostiles” was aspiring for a similar effect that just falls flat in the end. There are innumerable sequences during the film that feature shots with the average lengths of 15 to 20 seconds, that each rely on dialogue that linger and pause for ineffective dramatic effect over and over again. I am, in consequence, greatly anguished by the results, which I must say feels fitting giving this film at least does a solid job of capturing the grime and grim of America’s frontier.

The scene that captures this the most fluently is the horrific and startling opening scene that depicts a Native American assaulted on settlers’ property. This scene slaps you across the face right as the film begins and sets a precedent for what “Hostiles” should feel like throughout the remainder of its runtime. It sadly only recaptures that level of tension and jaw dropping violence in one more scene involving a fight upon horseback later in the movie. Otherwise the rest is an unfortunate scrambling from director Scott Cooper to assemble something of value on the screen. What a shame.

Consensus: If in the mood for a western that drags through its slow burn runtime, but undeniably at least features a stellar performance from Christian Bale alongside several tense redeemable sequences, “Hostiles” is the movie for you.