Review: Bale, landscapes, boost grim ‘Hostiles’

This image released by Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures shows Christian Bale in a scene from "Hostiles." (Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures via AP)
The Associated Press

Enemies are thrown together for a perilous journey in “Hostiles ,” an unforgivingly violent and sparse revisionist Western set in 1892 that explores the traumas of American westward expansion.

There’s hardly a soul in writer-director Scott Cooper’s ambitious odyssey who isn’t haunted by some gruesome incident of the past, whether it’s the cavalry officers who slaughtered and scalped untold numbers of natives, the natives who slaughtered untold numbers of cavalry officers, or the young settler family that goes from five members to only one in the distressing opening scene of the film. To say this is a grim and difficult watch is an understatement.

Christian Bale, who also starred in Cooper’s gloomy “Out of the Furnace,” leads a formidable ensemble cast as a U.S. Cavalry Officer, Captain Joseph J. Blocker, who is ordered to lead an aging Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from a base in New Mexico to their homelands in Montana. Having had encounters with this man before, Blocker has no interest in embarking on this endeavor, convinced that Yellow Hawk could only be a safe and trustworthy companion dead. But this choice isn’t up to him and he’s going to have to go through with it whether he likes it or not —so they assemble a crew (including Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet) and head off on the trail.

It’s a premise that lends significant and compelling tension to every scene. Although not much is happening early on, it’s the threat of what might happen that keeps you glued to the screen and worried for all involved. Will there be a misunderstanding? A mistake? A scuffle that escalates too quickly? Things are further complicated when group encounters a burned down settlement and a grieving woman shuttered inside. She is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) and has suffered nearly unspeakable loss. Blocker, likely not knowing what else to do with the possibly suicidal woman, takes her along with them.

“Hostiles” takes its time getting its characters across the over 1,000-mile stretch of the United States, but it is a gorgeous journey thanks to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. His camera makes even the most familiar western milieus looks splendidly fresh and invigorating. If only the meandering story and dialogue were matches for the pure poetry of the scenery.

Cooper wrote the screenplay off of a manuscript from the late Donald E. Stewart (“Missing,” ”Patriot Games”). Misery, regret and grief drip from every word, and it’s hard not to wonder if the impact is dulled as a result. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments that are deserving of this seriousness. Indeed, Cooper has chosen to bite off no less than the sins of the entire American West and give voice and compassion to everyone — the people defending their lands, the settlers looking for a new life, and those who were “just doing their jobs,” even if their jobs involve killing women and children.

Actors like Bale, Pike, Studi and the rest of the cast (even the clichéd casting of Ben Foster as an unhinged, outspoken criminal) elevate the dreariness of the script with compelling dramatic performances. Bale especially stands out as the gruff Blocker, whose layers start to be exposed as the story moves along. And, while she isn’t given all that much to do, it is a treat to see actress Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas opposite Bale in “The New World,” back in a mainstream film.

Bursts of intense violence are punctuated with sometimes tedious blocks of speeches and silence, but “Hostiles,” despite its posture of brutal amorality, has a goodness at its core, of understanding and empathy. It also has something that so many sequel and franchise-hungry studios today wouldn’t dare show — an actual ending.

“Hostiles,” an Entertainment Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong violence, and language.” Running time: 135 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.