By an interesting coincidence when I saw this film I had just been reading about the terrible atrocities perpetrated on native Americans by the white settlers. So the shocking opening sequence of Hostiles had a strange effect on me...
Or rather no effect. I watched the family of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) being wiped out by Apaches, including her small children. And I was stonily unmoved — because I knew all too well how much evil had been done the other way around.
"This movie has really missed the mark with me," I thought. But I was completely wrong...
Because, to its enormous credit, that is exactly the intention of Hostiles. It deliberately begins with this argument so it can set about refuting it. Or at least balance it.
Thus, having established the appalling suffering of Rosalie, it then neatly reverses our sympathies, by showing the even worse suffering of the Indians.
It does this through Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a captive Cheyenne leader, and his family, who are being grudgingly (very grudgingly) escorted back to their ancestral homelands by Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) — a professional soldier with a lifelong hatred of all things Indian.
As their trek commences they find the traumatised Rosalie and take her along with them, on a journey of discovery in which deeply held beliefs on all sides are challenged and profoundly changed.
This is a gripping, moving and highly intelligent movie which has something tremendously important to say, and it does so in the shape of an action packed Western, easily qualifying Hostiles as an important film and one of the best of the year.
It is directed by Scott Cooper, who previously directed Black Mass, the Johnny Depp Boston crime story. Cooper also wrote the screenplay (he previously wrote Crazy Heart, about Jeff Bridges as a washed up country singer).
The film has an intriguing genesis — Cooper's script is based on the work of the late Donald Stewart, a distinguished veteran screenwriter with a fascinating career.
Donald Stewart started out writing exploitation movies for Roger Corman (Jackson County Jail, Deathsport) then worked on the radical classic Missing for Costa-Gavras — and won an Oscar and a BAFTA for it — before moving into the commercial mainstream and working on all the Jack Ryan spy thrillers, starting with The Hunt for Red October.
Hostiles was clearly a labour of love by Donald Stewart, because it was painstakingly researched. The credit on the movie reads "based on a manuscript by", so it's not clear if he wrote a novel or a screenplay, but whatever he created it was the basis for an outstanding film.
Stewart's widow gave the manuscript to Scott Cooper who saw the potential to make a movie about "all of the things we as Americans need to better understand to make this country heal."
The picture has a structural flaw — it effectively stops halfway through and then starts again — but other than that it is beautifully made by Scott Cooper and clearly is a heartfelt work.
And I'm delighted to report that Hostiles, after harrowing and terrible losses along the way, has a marvellous ending.
(Image credits: all four posters from Imp Awards.)