Writer/director Scott Cooper had a wonderful opportunity to deliver a gritty, soul-searching tale of a clash between cultures and personalities, but he unfortunately squanders it on a drawn-out film that alternates between dreary and repetitive.
Set in 1892, Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is given the hard choice of either leading a group of soldiers as they escort Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to his tribal lands in Montana, or facing a court martial and the loss of his pension shortly before retirement. As tensions rise on the trail, the group encounter a homestead destroyed by Native Americans; the sole survivor of the family, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is added to the escort until she can reach the nearest town. What follows is two hours of drudgery, interspersed with a few scenes of action to make sure you are still awake.
Christian Bale is more recognizable as himself than his character, giving a performance that smells strongly of director intervention. Had he been able to interpret the character more deeply, the movie would have benefited. Rosamund Pike is given a little more leeway to breathe life into Rosalie Quaid, but even her skills are wasted in this film. None of the other characters stand out in any appreciable way—which is weird, considering the number of roles that were written specifically for the actors portraying them.
Instead of a single, 133-minute piece, the movie feels almost like several shorter vignettes loosely connected by a common theme. As a result, we never feel any real attachment to the characters, not even the leads. In addition, the film doesn’t go in the directions you would expect it to—and at times you wish that it would, just to provide the small satisfaction of being right. These problems ultimately muddle any message of commonality or brotherhood the movie is trying to deliver.
This is not to say that the script doesn’t have its moments, as Cooper’s ability to write dialogue shines in a few scenes. Unfortunately, most are a series of “almosts.” At various points you almost care about a character; you almost want to know what happens next; you almost wish someone had some better luck. Unfortunately, the almost that comes closest to fruition is almost giving in to the urge to leave.
Perhaps the problem is in the script. At 95 minutes, this film probably could have been salvaged. At 133 minutes, there is little to enjoy but the panoramic views and a few flashes of hope that are quickly dashed. The only consistently good things about Hostiles are its cinematography and its settings, which reach their apex in the perfectly shot final scene. The score, by veteran composer Max Richter, comes in a distant third.
To sum it up, Hostiles is aptly titled, because that is exactly what many viewers will feel like by the end.