Christian Bale delivers a tough, quietly engulfing performance in “Hostiles,” a thematically and visually rich Western in which writer-director Scott Cooper marshals old-school widescreen classicism in service to boldly revisionist themes.
If those impulses don’t always move easily in harness, this demonstration of ambition is nonetheless a welcome addition to the cinematic season. At a minimum, viewers mourning the retirement of Daniel Day-Lewis are reminded that a supremely qualified performer is available to assume the mantle of our finest living screen actor.
Bale plays Capt. Joseph Blocker, a legend of the U.S. cavalry who in 1892 is assigned to escort dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from Fort Berringer, in New Mexico, to the chief’s tribal homeland in Montana. An inveterate warrior who has built up viscous reserves of hatred for the Native Americans he’s fought for decades, Blocker initially declines the assignment. But his military reputation and pension are at stake, and soon he’s on the road north with a team of his best men, a fresh-faced recruit and, eventually, a criminal accused of murder and a widow half-crazed with grief.
With its linear, mission-centric plot and collection of archetypal characters, “Hostiles,” which Cooper adapted from an unproduced manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (“Missing”), bears more than passing resemblance to such towering John Ford classics as “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers,” an affinity underlined by the sweeping landscape and kinetic action captured with keen sensitivity by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. With his hard-bitten squint and studied air of scowling detachment, Bale seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood at his most enigmatic and reserved; like Eastwood and his characters, Bale allows both the camera and his fellow characters to come to him, rather than proving his bona fides through more obvious and eager means.
Luckily, he’s matched by a superior supporting cast of actors who deliver equally assured performances here, even when the people they’re playing feel less organic than machined to make a political point about tolerance and hypocrisy: To name just a few, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, Ben Foster and the ubiquitous Timothée Chalamet are all on hand for some duration of the journey; Rosamund Pike, as a woman they meet named Rosalie Quaid, delivers a searing portrayal of trauma at its most physically excruciating and psychically disorienting. (The film’s opening scene, in which we witness the source of her loss, is staged with sanguinary, savage realism.)
Excellent, too, are Studi and Adam Beach, Xavier Horsechief, Q’orianka Kilcher and Tanaya Beatty, the actors who play Yellow Chief’s family. Unfortunately, in a story about overcoming reflexive fears and animus to discover human commonalities, they’re relegated to the background of a narrative that asks the audience to believe in sudden reversals and changes of heart, as well as nearly every ambush, abduction, near-rape and showdown in the Western playbook.
Like “Unforgiven” and “The Revenant,” Cooper’s film raises the ever-present question of when a cliche becomes a trope: Although “Hostiles” has its share of the former, it nonetheless engages the conventions of the genre— including ideas about male honor and egotistical frailty — in ways that feel alert and timely. The wretched cycle of violence and retribution, and the carnage it regurgitates, are still very much with us, as the D.H. Lawrence quote that Cooper chooses as an epigraph attests: “The essential American soul,” he wrote, “is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.”