Scott Cooper (Black Mass) returns to dark, brooding territory with Christian Bale vehicle, Hostiles. A Western so harrowing and bleak that it will leave you stone faced exhausted, struggling to get through the very first act, where things begin with a sprinkling of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly then quickly turn sinister.
Bale seems to have shed his skin and placed his spirit in the 1890s violent West as infamous Army captain, Joseph J. Blocker. He wears the atrocities committed by every surrounding faction, recalling the men he’s lost, the battles won and the blood spilt. Blocker seems to communicate with his eyes and inaudible grunts mainly, only flowering into deep conversation with his comrades, other traumatized, half-souled men from the assault on Native Americans and the gunfire and the scalped corpses laying in the dry heat. These memories are still alive and surround the psyche of Blocker and his men. A direct order from Washington lands on the nearly retired Captains lap, in which he must escort the dying Cheyenne War Chief, Yellow Hawk, to his home. At first Blocker refuses the mission, but is ultimately forced into the role after his superiors threaten his pension. Just after setting out, the group encounters a grieving woman (Rosamund Pike) both shocked and carressing her dead baby. She tells the soldiers her family is asleep. That about sets the tone.
From there, Cooper’s picture drags along and becomes rather tiresome. There are moments of incredible acting from the leads, specifically Bale and Bill Camp — who has been an exciting presence on screen after his fantastic turn in The Night Of.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi translates radiance through the muck, divine skies and limitless mountains in the visual — Hostiles is a beautiful film to look at. Even when scenes of macabre and extreme racial bigotry cause whiplash, the next quiet moment inside an earthy landscape brings it back to a place of warm escapism.
Every revolver shot engulfs the ears and roars along to an echo, the violence grows stronger in its brief chapter-like moments. During Blockers journey into the heart of a blood-soaked America, he begins to feel deep regret for the treatment of Native Americans. Perhaps the respect was always there, but fighting alongside Yellow Hawk as they face the feral ruthlessness of a land stolen and torn apart brings a certain mutual admiration and empathy.
Hostiles isn’t a bad film in any respect, it is at times haunting and unforgettable, the message and monologues hit hard with an equally brutal cinematic companion. Unfortunately, the ending creeps up too late and the fire is but embers by the time the credits roll. With a tighter cut and a meatier presence for characters like Ben Foster’s doomed to hang Philip Wills, Cooper’s meandering nightmare vision of a terribly unenlightened time could have been great.