The Movie Waffler Now on Netflix - HOSTILES | The Movie Waffler

Now on Netflix - HOSTILES

hostiles review
A veteran US Cavalry officer is charged with escorting a newly freed Cheyenne chief and his family back to their home.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, Q'orianka Kilcher, Peter Mullan, Ben Foster

hostiles poster

Western movies have often been riddled with anachronisms, be it modern day watches on the wrists of 19th century cowboys or American Civil War battles fought with weapons that wouldn't be first employed until World War I. You won't find any historically conspicuous props in Scott Cooper's grim western Hostiles, but you will find plenty of anachronistic behaviour from its paleface protagonists, who display progressive attitudes towards Native Americans that would seem out of place among many of today's white Americans, let alone those alive during the film's 1892 setting.

Christian Bale is US Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker, a man with an intense hatred for Native Americans, one said to have claimed more scalps than most Native War Chiefs. He's none too impressed when his superiors force him to escort newly freed Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana homeland.


Along the journey, the group of Cavalry soldiers and their Native charges come across the distraught Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whom we witness losing her entire family to a murderous Comanche raid in the movie's genuinely shocking opening sequence. With the Comanches still in the area, and the group vastly outnumbered, Blocker reluctantly accepts that he must work alongside Yellow Hawk if they're to make it to the Chief's home.

[ READ MORE: Now on Netflix - Kursk: The Last Mission ]

There's a dishonesty to the quick turnaround of the bigoted attitude held by Hostiles' white protagonists that will rankle any viewers with a minimum of knowledge of how Native Americans were (and to a large degree, still are - DAPL anyone?) considered by white colonialists as 'savages' who stood in the way of progress. Despite seeing her family wiped out by Comanches, Rosalie is unfeasibly quick to befriend the Cheyenne party, rather than lumping them in with her children's killers. The movie goes out of its way to establish Blocker's intense contempt for Native Americans of any tribe, yet Yellow Hawk simply has to make a few friendly gestures to turn him around. Most insufferable of all is a speech by Blocker's Sergeant (an excellent Rory Cochrane) in which he atones for the white man's genocidal behaviour towards the Natives.


Back in the western's golden age of the '50s, filmmakers like Anthony Mann and John Ford were honest in giving us uncomfortable anti-heroes who were just as racist as the end of their movies as at the beginning, but Cooper's film seems designed to help white Americans sleep at night. What makes his film's liberal hypocrisy all the more irritating is how the narrative never gives any agency to Yellow Hawk and his family, who are viewed purely through the gaze of their white escorts - they exist merely to make the white protagonists become better people. Apart from how offensive this is, it's a crime to waste an actor with the unique charisma of Studi (I recommend Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend if you want to see what he's capable of).

[ READ MORE: Now on Netflix - Phantom Thread ]

Hostiles owes more than a debt to that most revered of revisionist westerns, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. There are two scenes lifted wholesale from Eastwood's Oscar winner - one in which Cochrane repeats Eastwood's "I've killed everything that's walked or crawled..." speech almost verbatim, and another in which a young soldier (Jesse Plemons) confesses to feeling morally and physically sick in the wake of his first kill.


I've criticised Cooper's film so much that you might feel I don't have a good word to say about it, but the truth is, for all its faults, it kept me engrossed throughout. It's easy to poke fun at Bale for his 'method' attitude to acting, but he's one of the finest actors working today, and his quietly tortured Blocker offers one of his most nuanced performances to date - the Welsh star really is on top form here. Bale meets his match in Cochrane, almost unrecognisable under a heavy beard as Blocker's war-weary and soul-destroyed second in command. Like Bale's, it's another quietly brilliant turn that will take anyone familiar with the character actor (best known for his role in Dazed and Confused a decade and a half ago) by surprise. Where has this actor been all this time?

I've always maintained that the western is the most difficult genre to screw up, as once you get the setting right you're already halfway there. Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography captures the American west in all its rugged glory, its natural beauty driving home the reasons men of opposing creeds would kill to own a piece of it. Hostiles is lumbered with too many issues for me to place it among the best of contemporary westerns, but it's certainly one of the most striking.

Hostiles is on Netflix UK now.