Courtesy of Entertainment Studios
The western genre has always been a tough cookie to crack. Because you have to find the thin line between an ambitious story without becoming overbearing. Often you'll find a western shacked up with the notion that body counts mean more than narrative, and to an extent that notoriety is true in Scott Cooper's new film entitled "Hostiles." But his message is more resounding than most and Christian Bale gives his best performance since "The Fighter."
The film sprawls on us in the depths of 1892 (the film was shot in Montana and Colorado and looks stunning) in Fort Berrings. New Mexico. Bale plays Capt. Joseph J Blocker, a tracker that's the best at what he does, which is slicing up Apache redskin scum he calls "savages." It's a classic vendetta of cowboys vs indians, without the cowboys. Blocker is a spiritual man, constantly living with his demons, and his high expanding body count. Through his performance we can feel this is a man that's seen quite a bit. Bale can fill moments of silence just with his presence, the fact he's been overlooked this award season for Best Actor is a travesty.
On the brink of retirement, his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) forces his hand, "you're the best tracking guy I have" he says. So when he's asked to transport an ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his homeland, it's met with some criticism. Blocker has seen this man murder his closest friends. But with Presidential orders in his corner, and the tides shifting on the views of Native Americans, Blocker doesn't have a choice but to take the Chief on a multi-state trek back to Montana. In a surreal moment, Blocker toys with the notion of taking justice into his own hands and finish the task himself, but relents when the Chief says he's "not afraid of death."
Along the way, Blocker and his crew stumbleupon Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) whose family has been massacred, and takes her with them. Pike offers another brutal performance that is a mix between a mother whose lost everything, and one that has a thirst for retribution. Either way, some of her emotional pulls are heartbreaking.
While a good chunk of "Hostiles" deals with the quiet, somber, wilderness of the mountain plains. Cooper brings the action fast and in your face. Somehow, he's the only director I know that can show a family perforated by bullets and have it feel correct. Because he knows violence packs more punch when done matter of factly. The opening sequence immediately sets the tone for the next two hour plus ride.
Still, the slower moments feel even more prominent when we've just had an intense mexican standoff. Not to mention the Native American characters really aren't developed. They're either heroes in the moment, or thugs that deserve to be ripped from head to toe. Studi, a staple in these kind of roles, does hold his own as the Chief dealing with much adversity. But for as underdeveloped as some of these characters are, the film does the job of tackling the subjugation of blind racism without being over the top.
Ben Foster shows up late in the third quarter as a tag on to Bale's flank, a former Army captain that's being tried for the slaughtering of an Indian family for hardly any reason at all. He offers an interesting contrast to Blocker. An example of the life he could've lead. I love a speech Foster gives about how "you don't have a right to judge me," because he's correct. Blocker could've easily found himself in that position, a man on the wrong side of the law. Blocker even says "I was just doing my job" when asked about the countless individuals he's killed.
I wasn't a big fan of Cooper's last film, the hardly seen "Out Of The Furnace," I thought it didn't give his characters a redeeming arch, and it barely amounted to much in the end. He's seemed to fix those errors in "Hostiles." A fine example of a progressive western that isn't afraid to make you feel empty, only to give you a sense of hope. B+