How 'Hostiles' thinks too big
By Kristen Page-Kirby
Feb. 7, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.
Westerns must be shot big, but their stories must be small.
The uniquely American film genre is ours if only because we're the ones with the necessary landscape. Even countries that do have the land don't have the mythos; the Canadians might have land from sea to shining sea, but they never had a Wild West. If anything, they had a Mild West, amirite?
"Hostiles" gets the look of both the West and the Western right. Joseph Blocker, an Army captain (Christian Bale, turning the glowering up to 11) takes on One Last Job: escorting a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) — who Blocker once met in combat — from New Mexico to Montana so he can die in his homeland.
On the way, Blocker and his Merry Band of Western Cliches find Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), a woman whose entire family was murdered by Indians in one of the film's most gripping scenes. As the group moves farther and farther north, a lot happens. So much happens. SO MUCH happens that a more accurate title would be "Hostiles: Oh, God, NOW What?"
As the film moves from sandy scrub to lush prairie, writer-director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") captures the scenery admirably well. "Hostiles" looks like a Western, but Scott seems to have forgotten that all the best Westerns, no matter how big the landscape, are each about one thing. Obsession in "The Searchers." Greed in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Solitary bravery in "High Noon." Even the TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove," which is six hours long, is, in the end, about friendship.
Cooper expects Blocker, Bale and the movie as a whole to shoulder theme after theme and carry them every step of the way. At various points, "Hostiles" hits on forgiveness, the existence of God, grief, the difference between justice and revenge, the systematic cruelty of some whites toward Indians, the intermittent brutality of some Indians toward whites, and an absolute chuck wagon full of guilt. There is so much to do that none of it gets done well.
The most American thing about Westerns is that they emphasize individuality, the role of one man (usually) in a large expanse. America has — for good or for ill — so emphasized individuality that the genre of film that most belongs to us uses it as its defining feature. So much of our country is so big — deals and ideas, men and myths — that it can be hard to remember that the story of America is not some behemoth that leaped from the Mayflower fully formed.
"Hostiles" tries to sum up America's experience in the West in one movie and in one man, but that's not how a Western or, frankly, life works. The sky is big — it's the stories that are small.