The American Western, that most venerable of Hollywood genres, has long since faded from mainstream popularity. Westerns typically explore that narrow, brief slice of American history starting around the Civil War through the turn of the century — just 35-40 years in total. And yet, there are more films categorized as Westerns than in any other genre in American cinema, by a country mile. Unfortunately, Westerns have fallen upon hard times in recent decades, in large part because every story, trope, character, and setting has been run into the ground.
However, every once in a while an innovative filmmaker recognizes some new angle or overlooked corner of the Old West, resulting in unexpected classics like Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, True Grit, and The Revenant. These recent epics tilted the board, blurring cliched conventions of black and white hats into murky shades of gray. Even Quentin Tarantino’s oddball reinventions — Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight — dug into narratives and locales that we simply hadn’t seen before.
This is how a genre returns to form!
These modern-era Westerns are unique and compelling because they realized that there were no heroes or villains on the frontier — only butchers and survivors. Hostiles, the new Western by writer-director Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart), is an allegory about endless war, where the Union Army and Cheyenne Indians stand in for the 82nd Airborne and the Taliban (or ISIS). Cooper’s Old West tale entails a politically-driven, prisoner escort assigned to a grizzled old Soldier, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), to return his old enemy, a Cheyenne war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) — looking as intense and unwavering as ever — back to his tribal lands in Montana.
As stories go, this isn’t terribly original stuff. The deeper hook in this film is an examination of the savagery conducted by both Union and Native forces upon one another — a cycle of violence perpetuated by both sides, leading to decades of bloody reprisals, reciprocity, and ultimately the near genocide of the vast majority of this continent’s indigenous peoples. This is a bleak and serious film that appears to take no prisoners, and isn’t shy about casting blame; the characters in this trailer often pause to reflect upon the horrors around them, expressing both regret and terror.
Hostiles also has an amazing cast of actors, some familiar with the subject matter and some new to the genre, including: Adam Beach, Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, and Stephen Lang. Cooper has assembled this group to create a (hopefully) new Western epic that can take its place among the aforementioned recent Western classics.
This is also a stunningly beautiful movie; the cinematography is epic, a travelogue of high-desert plains, unrelenting deserts, and rolling vistas right out of a Frederic Remington painting. However, this natural beauty is marred by murder and mayhem, by means of rifle, pistol, and knife that illustrates the pointlessness of conflict and the tenuous grip people had on their lives. It’s unclear just how graphic the violence will get in this R-rated film, but it sure appears that Hostiles will try to give The Revenant a run for its money.
Hostiles won’t revive the genre all by itself, but it might provide a useful mirror to help us process and understand our contemporary, armed conflicts, which we similarly find ourselves unable to detach.
Hostiles hits theaters on December 22, 2017.
Set in 1892, Hostiles tells the story of a legendary Army Captain (Christian Bale), who after stern resistance, reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. Making the harrowing and perilous journey from Fort Berringer, an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico, to the grasslands of Montana, the former rivals encounter a young widow (Rosamund Pike), whose family was murdered on the plains. Together, they must join forces to overcome the punishing landscape, hostile Comanche and vicious outliers that they encounter along the way.
Hostiles is directed by Scott Cooper and produced by John Lesher (Birdman, Fury) and Ken Kao (The Nice Guys, Knight of Cups). Starring Christian Bale (American Hustle, The Dark Knight) Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Jack Reacher), Wes Studi (Avatar, Heat), Adam Beach (Suicide Squad, Flags of Our Fathers), Ben Foster (Hell or High Water, 3:10 to Yuma), Q’orianka Kilcher (Unnatural), Tanaya Beatty (Twilight), Jonathan Majors (Do Not Disturb), Rory Cochrane (Black Mass, Argo), Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies), Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar), Paul Anderson (The Revenant), Ryan Bingham (Crazy Heart), David Midthunder (Comanche Moon), John Benjamin Hickey (Pitch Perfect), Stephen Lang (Avatar), Bill Camp (12 years a Slave).