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A little under two years ago, I opened my review of Alexander Innaruto’s The Revenant by comparing the films breath-taking opening sequence to the first major passage of violence in Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian. This was a mistake. I’d much prefer to evoke that passage of writing when talking about the opening of Scott Cooper’s western, Hostiles. The film opens with a truly brutal scene in which a frontier ranch is mercilessly invaded by a Apache tribe. Whatever about the seasoned fur trappers ambushed in the Revenant, at least they were armed to the teeth. The proto-nuclear family have barely a wood cutting act, and the result is about as brutal as you’d expect. Cooper leaves very little to the viewer’s imagination: we even see babies butchered without remorse. Wife Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) barely survives. After this genuinely horrifying opening sequence, I was cursing the fact that I had already quoted McCarthy in a review. As the film wore on however, I become relieved, as it quickly proved itself to be beneath such comparisons.
Native American brutality is compared almost immediately with Yankee brutality after the title sequence, when we are introduced to Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) rounding up the last of the “savages” that populate Wyoming, a sorry sight of the very young and the very old, lamenting for the days when he’d lead his men into war. Blocker is then ordered to escort an aging Cheyanne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his tribal lands, pending his imminent demise. In fewer words, Blocker explains that he’s not to be trusted on this job, considering Yellow Hawk “slaughtered” large chunks of his unit way back when, but he eventually grits his teeth and agrees. The group have barely left camp when Blocker has Hawk and his family clapped in irons, with the threat of violence notching higher with each step. The group some stumble across Ms. Quaid, still traumatised her families murder, and it looks as though Cooper has set up and unbearable slow burning descent into cruelty and vengeance.
The problem with Hostiles is that Cooper ultimately loses his nerve, which some viewers might remember was the main issue with his last movie, Black Mass. Black Mass, you’ll recall, was nominally a crime thriller that seemed to initially present itself as a weird European Gothic vampire flick, with the early scenes really giving Johnny Depp a chance to chew the scenery in a way that hadn’t in a while. Where it went wrong was when Cooper seemed to lose faith in this direction and turn the movie, at some point at the beginning of the second act, into more standard procedural fare. The same problem exists in Hostiles, which loses its nerve as a potential horror movie and decides to evoke nearly every Western cliché that you’d care to think about.
This feels particularly egregious considering the talent that Cooper has at his disposal. Rosamund Pike, still iconic from her utterly psychotic turn as Amy Dunne, is reduced a simpering housewife. She’s there only to provide redemption for our hero. A lot of early buzz around this film focused on Christian Bale, who is very much at home with the character, who can’t really help the part rise above cliché. He could have been very interesting as a man who begins a slow descent into madness and menace, but instead the film is quite happy for him to undergo a deeply unearned redemption arc. As for the Native American? The film is only to pleased to turn them into well springs of wisdom for their white baiters. The western is a genre that can still have plenty of interesting things done with it – in recent memory we’ve had things like Bone Tomahawk and Slow West really have fun or subvert our ideas of what a western can be, or even James Mangold’s Logan, which basically got away with marrying superhero elements to the formula. When you watch Hostiles with these films in the back of your mind, it reminds you why traditional westerns have fallen out of fashion.
Hostiles opens with DH Lawrence’s quote that the American soul is a “hard, stoic killer”. Fingers crossed that this year’s Dick Cheney biopic will give Bale a chance to really explore that idea.