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A Brutal Western With a Heart
by

Good actors show up in terrible films. This year’s The Leisure Seeker is an example: the great Helen Mirren works with a sublimely bad script and the resulting Very Ill Senior Citizen comedy is utterly unwatchable. Bad actors sometimes show up in good films. It’s rare. But think of the appealing yet modestly talented Vin Diesel in the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy.

This just to say that the match-up of a great actor, screenplay, director, camera man, composer, and supporting cast is unusual. When it happens, we should take note. So here we are: Christian Bale and Hostiles are a match.

Written and directed by Scott Cooper, this story has kept me mesmerized for weeks. I still can see Bale as Army Captain Joseph Blocker, in a gorgeous wide shot, silently supporting the newly widowed Rosalie Quaid (played by Rosamund Pike) as she buries her young children with her bare hands on a frozen hilltop at sundown.

This is 1892. Native Americans have just slaughtered the Quaid family. Joseph’s job, with a team of young soldiers, is to transport an imprisoned, severely ill Indian Chief back to his birth place in Montana for him to die there. They happen upon the traumatized woman right after another native tribe has viciously attacked her home. The layers and complications of this moment alone — the way it was written and acted by Bale and Pike — deserve recognition as award season has begun. That act of raw grief on the hill made me realize it really is one of those uncommon moments where talent and story meet. Let us hope Oscar voters do recognize it.

Bale plays the rugged, scrappy captain who is both revered for his heroism and cynical after everything he has seen on the western frontier. His disdain for the ‘savage’ natives runs deep. So when the assignment forces him to transport the shackled Cheyenne chief and his family through hostile territory to their tribal land, Bale’s character is reluctant.

But he is a man of honor and order, so he rides off through the stunning emptiness of the American West. Cooper’s cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi deserves kudos here. He has shot some of the best films of the last few years (Silver Linings Playbook, Spotlight) and he does it again here, creating intimacy on the screen while filming the vastness of America. With the haunting music composed by Max Richter they set the mood that lines up, with true precision, with the acting. This is a frontier story with a profound frontier feel.

As soon as Joseph’s crew is off, they find the woman embodied by Pike. She has shown her talent in films such as Jack Reacher and Gone Girl. Here she shines, making us feel the loss of her family in an explosion of wild violence. One of the things I love about the film is that Cooper shows the blood and gore and truth of such violence sparingly. It is enough to make you shudder, but not too much to make you turn away in disgust.

The imprisoned Chief Yellow Hawk is played with tender toughness by the always good Wes Study (Dances With Wolves). As he travels with Joseph’s crew, the Chief manages to change Blocker gradually as he helps the white soldiers battle the Comanche Indians who attacked Quaid’s family.

The film doesn’t suggest that Joseph is a good guy. Neither is the Chief a ‘noble’ savage. Their characters are much layered. And the story gets deeper still when halfway through Joseph is given one more assignment: to escort private Philip Wills (Ben Foster) to his final resting place, where he will be hanged for some unspoken crime. From the conversations between Joseph and Philip we learn they have a history. We also learn that the good Joseph has a dark past himself.

Cooper likes violence, heroic male stories, and a strong narrative. His earlier Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace (overlooked, alas) both worked, I thought, because he combined all three. In this film he takes that combination further. While the violence is as brutal as life was back then, this film also allows for changes of heart and unusual alliances and friendships. A white captain and his Indian prisoner can build true trust. The film never dwells on this idea of harmony, incidentally. But we do see a capacity for forgiveness in a sea of bloodshed. Bale, Pike, West and the rest of the cast bring subtlety to the inhospitable essence of the land they traverse.

The film is two hours long, and I’ve heard complaints about the length and slow pace of Hostiles. To me, the film could have been longer still. Watching Bale on his horse unloading his pistols on hostiles, later shaking the hand of one of them in new-found friendship, is a sight. As is the moving ending, which alone will make you glad you saw this.

Hostiles (rated R) is now playing in Los Angeles and New York. It will open nationwide on December 22.

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