Written for the screen and impressively directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Black Mass), Hostiles is an objective telling of a true-to-life tale that took place in 1892, when Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) grudgingly accepts his mission to transport a Native American chief and his family through threatening lands. Along the way, he comes across the recently widowed Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl), who experienced a massacre by the hands of Natives when her husband and children were slaughtered right before her eyes. She manages to escape, in a breathtaking scene where she hides amongst the wilderness, covering her mouth with her fist so that the slightest breath of air won’t escape; because if it does, the ruthless Native American chasing her will have no mercy.
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” This is the quote we see superimposed in title cards over black in the opening of Hostiles, by the English playwright and poet D.H. Lawrence, and what a powerful quote it is. We jump into the skin of our hero, Captain Blocker, a deep and fierce performance by Christian Bale who maintains immobile jawbones and deserted eyes throughout Hostiles, a magnificent picture. Scott Cooper fairmindedly directs the set-up in the opening act on an even keel. We’re shown the ruthlessness of the Native Americans in their slaughter of an American family, immediately followed thereafter by Captain Blocker’s Army gunning down a Native family in equally disturbing carnage. “It ought not be this way.” Says Captain Royce Tolan (John Benjamin Hickley, The Taking of Pelham 123) to which Captain Blocker responds, “Is there a better way, Tolan?” This mentality of Captain Blocker is due to the uncompromising and die-hard nature of the battle against the Native Americans. An edge is given to the Native Americans when we’re given the impression in the second act of the story, that it’s the Americans who are in the wrong, when an important supporting character of the Army awakens the escorted Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, Heat) at his tent in the middle of the night amidst pouring rain in an emotional scene, “Our treatment of the Natives cannot be forgiven. Have mercy on us.”
Scott Cooper does a remarkable job in utilizing extremely long takes on his actors while the musical score by German composer Max Richter (Shutter Island) sneaks in, powerfully raising the tension of the scene and moving the audience without our noticing. Elongated beats in between dialogue is a common tool used throughout the film, creating great anticipation by emphasizing the use of slow movement in enhancing the power of a scene. All of this, in conjunction with smooth editing transitions by Oscar winner Tom Cross (Whiplash) , seamlessly cutting the picture together for our eyes to witness glorious cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior) who perfectly captures the grand scenery necessary for this classic American film genre; the western. We go to the movies to be moved emotionally and we can expect at least one or two special moments in a film where the filmmakers and performers capture that. Hostiles has at least a dozen of those moments.
There are many realistically directed scenes that are so incredibly moving, like when Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid bawls when grieving of her family’s loss, Christian Bale’s Captain Blocker holds her up by her elbows, as opposed to her unrealistically burying herself in his arms in embracement. Captain Blocker, though obviously attracted to her from the start, pays utmost respect to her as a widow, referring to her as Ma’am, and Scott Cooper does a skillful job in showing us a glimpse of their growing attraction of one another in a quick moment amongst a series of dissolving shots where they roll over into each other’s arms in their tent a amidst their journey. Finally leading up to Scott Cooper’s masterful direction in the film’s final images, where a Captain Blocker waits for Rosalie Quaid to board the train with the only surviving young Cheyenne boy.
The subtextual dialogue written by Cooper in this scene is brilliant. “I didn’t expect the train to come so soon.” Says Captain Blocker, also known as, “Please don’t go, yet.” To which Rosalie Quaid responds with tears in her eyes as she boards the train, “You’re a fine man. Whatever comes for you, I pray it’s good.” Also known as, “I love you. I wish I could be with you, but, out of respect as a widow, I must go and be alone.” Captain Blocker than turns the corner, pounding the pavement in heavy strides carrying the hard, stoic and isolated American soul with him, while Rosalie sits in the train, crying her eyes out in sadness of her suppressed longing for his love.
Then we see Captain Blocker deeply contemplating inside his killer mentality, standing around the corner as the train begins to pick-up speed, his stoic American soul finally melts, as he takes slow strides forward in a marvelous wide-angle shot of him standing still next to the slowly moving train. Will Rosalie get off the train? When he sees that she doesn’t, he melts his American soul and takes a step onto the back of the train in pursuit of her, gently opening the back door and stepping inside. The heroism and bravery portrayed by this Army Captain in escorting the Cheyenne chief and rescuing Rosalie Quaid was evident, but, the most courageous thing he did was stepping onto the train to pursue her. His hard, isolated, stoic American soul finally melts away in the name of love.