The Man With No Smile, this is very much Christian Bale's filmENTERTAINMENT STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES

The posters for Hostiles give a mistaken impression – cast stills all monochrome save for blood-red lettering, and trailers, gunslinging and blank stares overlaid by angsty dialogue bites – might lead one to pigeonhole it as edgy Nolanesque action material.

Indeed, the film’s first hour– a speedy massacre precedes Christian Bale simmering without pause – does little to change that view. However, it is Bale’s meticulously judged performance that ultimately lifts Hostiles above a mere snapshot of a violent, prejudiced West to a study of violence and prejudice themselves: how they twist us and self-perpetuate, and how they may be beaten.

Dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk is to be escorted home from a U.S. Army base, and Captain Joseph Blocker’s 20-plus years of experience ensure his selection as mission leader. However, his career in killing has hardened him to stony, and while there is a loathing among the colonists of the Native people in general, Blocker hates Yellow Hawk in particular for having killed several of his friends. To the film’s credit, it acknowledges throughout that violence can possess all equally, not just the villainous land-grabbers.

Trailer for HostilesYOUTUBE

While the proximity forced upon the non-Natives appears to pose an insurmountable challenge, it gradually replaces their us and them mentality with compassion and re-sensitisation. Indeed, the film produces a similar effect in its audience: years of exposure to fictional brutality have given us a strong stomach, but increasing investment in the characters’ growth, along with the fast-cutting hellishness of the (relatively rare) combat scenes, will have one wincing in the last few.

Writer-director Scott Cooper also avoids simplistically putting all violence down to racism, while acknowledging that the two issues often come together, and that peaceful coexistence can help to solve both.

Hostiles’s greatest feat is how it communicates the difficulty inherent in overcoming these vices. The importance of the first, long hour for character development becomes apparent only later: Bale’s unyielding dourness, which could be misinterpreted as lazy, emphasises how entrenched Blocker is in his senseless callousness.


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Likewise, the frequent long shots of harsh mesas that on first glance seem indulgent, but nonetheless beautiful, eventually make powerful the later movement into greener forests and glades as humaneness also flowers within Blocker – take note of Bale’s few smiles, precisely tracing the changing values of his character. Nor are there any snap redemption moments; the film is fraught to the final scene with temptations for Blocker to return to his old ways, and the strain visible in his struggling to resist leaves us without the slightest idea of whether he will succeed.

Not everything is realised with such nuance – there is some brief but grating sentimentality towards the conclusion, and Rosamund Pike maintains an air of aghast earnestness even as her character outgrows it in her lines, but Hostiles comes together in the end. It teaches the importance of forgiving and moving on, whether from prejudice, violent habits, or, indeed, poor film marketing