2018 may barely be a week old, but still, I doubt that we will see a more moving moment on screen this year than Rosamund Pike creates at the start of Hostiles. Discovered sat in her burnt-out cabin, clutching her dead baby in her arms, holding the hand of her one of her two dead daughters lying on the bed beside her, she hushes Christian Bale and his men into silence, lest they wake her children.
It is the start of a heartbreaking portrayal of grief and loss that commands the screen for the rest of the first act. I don’t know how many others in the audience were crying, but there certainly wasn’t a whisper or a popcorn rustle to be heard from anyone.
Hostiles is as far from the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ westerns as you can imagine, with real deaths, real burials and real consequences setting it apart from the endless, meaningless body-count you normally get. It swings between brutal and tender, savage and civilised throughout, as it delivers its message that we are all just people in the end, and there is breath-taking barbarity and heart-warming empathy to be seen on both sides.
With Rosamund Pike’s stand out performance as powerful as it is, it would be easy to underrate the quiet, understated achievement of Christian Bale, yet in many ways his performance is every bit as impressive. His epiphany does not arrive in a single, shocking moment, but grows slowly within him as the film progresses. As an army veteran who has both seen, and taken part in, far too many horrors and atrocities in the name of war, he moves slowly past the blind prejudice that has driven him and so many of his comrades in the past, to a place where he can see right and wrong for what they are, whichever side commits them.
Hostiles is not an easy watch, and as with all ‘road movies,’ there are inevitably points where the journey is uneventful and the pace drops a little. But the real journey here is not the one to Montana. Just as the scenery changes from day to day, segueing softly from the deserts of New Mexico to the forests of the north, until it is unrecognisable from where we started, so Bale’s Captain transforms as he too becomes less harsh and unforgiving.
It may have a minimal script and intermittent action, but Hostiles doesn’t ever let you go, from the horror of the opening massacre to the very final shots. What’s more, you’ll find that the lump that Ms Pike puts in your throat at the start stays with you for a long time afterwards.