by Hope Madden
Hey, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in another Western. Remember how fun 3:10 to Yuma was?!
Well, writer/director Scott Cooper is a very serious man. If there is one thing you won’t call his films—Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and his latest, Hostiles—it’s a laugh riot.
Hostiles is a morose Western with too-obvious intentions. Thanks to Bale and cinematographer Mesanobu Takayanagi, though, the result is a graceful if revisionist image. With Takayanagi’s help, Cooper recalls the best of John Ford’s The Searchers, and with Bale’s help he rectifies its worst.
Facing retirement from a lifetime of warring with Native Americans across the West, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) has one final assignment: escort the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die with his people.
After many years of hatred and resentment toward Native Americans in general and Yellow Hawk in particular, Blocker wants no part in this “parade.” But he is a good soldier.
The journey offers opportunities for many an adventure, the first of which is the meeting of homesteader Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Blocker’s party finds her in her burned-out home, but we already know what happened thanks to the profoundly brutal attack that opened the film.
Over the course of the film’s 133-minute running time, lessons are learned, each one coming at a very bloody cost. Though Bale and most of the supporting players deliver quietly devastating performances, their arcs feel more than forced. They feel patronizing.
Mainly that’s because the Native American actors have no such arcs. Studi, along with Adam Beach, Tanaya Beatty, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief—the prisoners—are one-dimensional beings of pure wisdom, compassion and nobility.
Which is no doubt preferable to the being nameless, bloodthirsty monsters that stand in for Apache characters.
Cooper sets his tale at a bitter transition in American history when civilization was beginning to overtake the Wild West and people like Blocker were no longer sure of their purpose, no longer comfortable with their past. Like Blocker, Cooper seems determined to right a wrong but, again like his character, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to do it.