The modern Western is closer to horror than epic adventure - the scars of American history, land appropriation, ethnic cleansing and savagery taking precedent over the lone hero on horseback fighting off bandits and saving fair maidens. In 1992 when Clint Eastwood reverse engineered the genre with Unforgiven, the Western passed its crossroads and headed down the highway to introspection and post trauma - these films were to closer resemble post-war films than Sunday afternoon entertainment. American Cinema has confronted its ugly past and in the process reinvented the perception of the historic west. Perhaps this is why last year’s Magnificent Seven remake failed - no amount of star studded gloss nor fun can cleanse the West of its filth. This genre is no longer about cowboys - it’s about war.
And war is where the roots of Hostiles lie. Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Black Mass) and starring Christian Bale, it follows a U.S. army captain charged with escorting Wes Studi’s Cheyenne Chief 1000 miles across Comanche territory to sacred homelands where his dying of cancer body can be laid to rest - an attempt by the army to fabricate peace in the new world. The drama comes out of Bale’s character’s racial hatred of the natives - a seasoned veteran who has ‘claimed more scalps than Sitting Bull’, he’s on the cusp of retirement before being given this suicide mission that only he is capable of achieving. His reluctance is fuelled by his disdain for Chief Yellow Hawk, a killer in his own right who has murdered friends of the beleaguered captain.
The tension and conflict of the film are its best features. The sequences when the Comanches raid the party of Bale’s soldiers and Yellow Hawk’s family is spectacular and unpredictable, but the scenes of camp and constant close proximity more shred nerves and challenge preconceptions, both for character and audience alike. A sort of western version of Saving Private Ryan, this is as much about the personalities sent on the mission and their relationship to one another as the mission itself.
The film opens with a brilliant sequence on a farm occupied by Rosamund Pike’s character and her family. I’ll avoid spoilers and instead say her subplot steers the story and, like the rest of the film, subverts genre expectations for the most part. This is Bale’s film though - his victim of war a complex antihero whose history of violence overshadows whatever good he might seek do in the future. Much like the genre itself, he’s a void of darkness which when looked closely upon reveals pain, suffering and a complexity; at once a thrilling and harrowing experience.