I couldn’t tell if it was the sound of crickets chirping or my seatmate snoring during a nighttime scene in the second half of “Hostiles.” Regardless of who emitted the sound, me, my seatmate and the on-screen crickets were in complete agreement: we couldn’t wait for Christian Bale and his western Army cronies to get off screen. This movie’s message is heavy-handed, its acting stiff and lifeless. Although it bodes the occasional thrill, “Hostiles” does not recuperate for the boring, meandering journey we had to take to get there.
The movie starts off with Rosalie, a soft-hearted, wholesome woman who spends her days in a cabin, homeschooling her two daughters as her husband Wesley, err, chops wood. Their idyllic, wood-chopped existence is thwarted when a group of savage Native Americans shows up and murders Rosalie’s family in cold blood. It should be a harrowing sequence but it feels hackneyed and contrived. In fact, its framed and executed so suspiciously similar to the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” that “Hostiles” feels like a parody of both Tarantino and itself.
Shortly after the savage murders, we meet Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, the stoic army captain played by Bale. A few of his soldiers are having fun toying with another Native American, establishing the overarching theme of the film: “it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, any man can be noble or a savage.” This theme is repeated through hints and rumors of Captain Blocker’s past. He’s a quiet man and doesn’t speak much to the horrors he’s seen in war, it’s up to other characters to gossip and prod at him to get it out. His secrets, though, are predictable, and their reveal is much less satisfying.
But Blocker is tasked with the perfect “The Odd Couple” western movie scenario: a Native American-hating general and his mostly white army unit has to escort a Native American family back to Montana. “What kind of crazy shenanigans will happen?” we imagine the CBS sitcom announcer saying before the movie plays.
Bale does a perfectly fine job with the character he’s given on this cross-country journey, not afraid to inject his eyes with rage or his spine with sorrow u. It’s just the character is written so poorly that no matter how good Bale might have done, it’ll still never feel exemplary. Early in the film, Bale speaks with a low-hushed voice, reminiscent of his turn as The Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. It’s a vocal move that’s meant to make Bale seem more serious, but only makes us laugh that much more.
Rosamund Pike has the opposite problem, though. Her character is far more interesting, a mother who loses her family and finds purpose again in this saga to get the Native American family home. But her acting feels forced, like she’s putting forth twice the effort to make certain snippets of dialogue seem believable. While most of the secondary characters are forgettable, there is a notable appearance from Jesse Plemons of “Breaking Bad” and “Black Mirror” fame as the loyal Lt. Rudy Kidder. Plemons never really transforms into his character. Like Bale and Pike, he’s just another famous face playing western when all we want is the real deal.
Performances aside, “Hostiles” suffers from a clear inability to distinguish a sense of time or a sense of space. We can count the nights that Blocker and crew camp out and make a reasonable estimate of how long they’ve been on the trail, but we’re given no clear indication if they’ve been traveling for weeks or even months. The journey does not feel that difficult either, as all the challenges that Blocker faces are manmade. Part of the thrill of a journey like this is knowing the road is dangerous outside of thieves or scoundrels firing bullets. Without that danger, there’s no way to keep us enticed.
Sadly, what could have been the film’s saving grace is also another gaping flaw: cinematography. This should be an easy A, a walk-off cinematic home run. You have not just the desert but the luscious trees, valleys, peaks and plains of the great west here, filmed on location in the beautiful backdrops of Arizona, Colorado,. But cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi makes the movie look as if it were shot in front of a ripped green screen of a Burbank studio.
The final scene is thrilling though, a clear parallel to the beginning sequence and the only point in the movie where we feel like we’re truly on the edge of our seats. But as the needlessly long, melodramatic ending roars on afterwards, we feel relieved that “Hostiles” is holding us hostage no longer.