In “Hostiles,” a solemnly bloody tale of white redemption in the Old West from writer-director Scott Cooper, Christian Bale does all his truest, best acting in between his actual lines of dialogue. The time is 1892. Bale’s character is a U.S. Army captain who has seen much slaughter, and has done a vengeful lion’s share of killing himself, in the wars against the Native American tribes.
Working from material written decades ago by Donald Stewart, Cooper’s film follows a redemptive journey north from New Mexico to Montana, as the fiercely bigoted Capt. Joseph Blocker and his men, on orders from President Harrison, escort a long-imprisoned and now dying Cheyenne war chief, played by Wes Studi, to his ancestral homeland. There, surrounded by his family, Yellow Hawk hopes to die with some measure of peace on his soul.
The hostiles of Cooper’s title, of course, refer to various tribes as well as the land-grabbing, government-sanctioned “settlers.” Cooper, whose earlier work includes “Crazy Heart” and the rather undervalued “Black Mass,” begins with a deliberately familiar sequence straight out of a hundred previous Westerns. A Comanche attack on white settlers leaves three children and one man dead, a homestead in flames and a suddenly widowed survivor, Rosalee Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, crazed with grief. Discovered en route to Montana by Blocker and company, Quaid joins the men on the trail north. And, as in Anthony Mann’s masterly early ’50s high-country Western “The Naked Spur,” a weaselly prisoner in chains (Ben Foster, doing his best, undermining Robert Ryan act) serves as a destabilizing force for all concerned.
Cooper has reworked this 1980s-era material to suit his own needs, but for better and for worse, “Hostiles” comes from a halfway point between the early revisionist antiheroic westerns of the ’70s and the gentler, patronizing likes of “Dances with Wolves.” Cooper structures his script as a steady series of hushed conversations and solemn burials under the big sky. A dozen or more excellent character actors keep things fairly interesting, and the cast includes everyone from the Young Actor of the Moment, Timothee Chalamet (as a marginal member of Blocker’s gang), to Rory Cochrane as Blocker’s longtime friend, a ruined man with too much blood on his hands. Masanobu Takayanagi’s widescreen cinematography looks lovely in low light as well as sunshine; Max Richter’s musical score is more of a mixed blessing, maintaining a mood of spare mourning throughout, to the point of monotony.
That’s often true of the film itself. Old-school fans of old-school, pre-sensitive Westerns may well roll their eyes at Blocker’s massive, rather preposterous change of heart regarding the people he has fought his entire adult life. Whatever one’s P.C. leanings, “Hostiles” errs in sidelining the Native American characters, some mere sketches in the margins, too long and too often.
It’s Blocker’s story, and Bale’s very good. But for “Hostiles” to fully make sense of its introductory on-screen D.H. Lawrence quotation — “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” — we’d need a tougher, less comforting ending than the one Cooper provides.