Wild brutal America
Christian Bale leads stellar cast in throwback western
Director Scott Cooper’s uncompromising brutal Western, Hostiles, makes Clint Eastwood’s classic of the genre, 1992’s somber Unforgiven, look like Mary Poppins.
Christian Bale turns in another spellbinder as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, a quiet, tired, jaded soldier spending the closing days of his military career in 1892 capturing and imprisoning Native Americans. He has fought many battles, seen many atrocities and committed many of his own.
When aging and terminally ill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is granted freedom by the president of the United States, somebody who knows his dialect must be chosen to escort him and his family back to Montana. Joe is the best candidate for the job, but it’s one he doesn’t want.
Joe fought against Yellow Hawk and the idea of leading him to a graceful death doesn’t appeal to him. In as tense a scene as any filmed last year, he says so to his colonel (Stephen Lang) and a stuffy bureaucrat (Bill Camp, who portrays one of the few characters in the film who qualifies as cartoonish). It’s in this scene that Bale establishes that this is going to rank among his best performances. And the movie has barely begun.
Actually, Cooper establishes the unrelenting darkness of this project before the title credit. Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is seen teaching her young children about adverbs as her husband tends to their farm. In an instant, Rosalie’s family life is decimated by a brutal attack by Comanche bandits.
Joe, having no real choice but to lead Yellow Hawk to his homeland, reluctantly sets out on the journey with the dying elder, his family (which includes the terrific Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) and a handful of soldiers. He stumbles upon a destroyed Rosalie and takes her into his traveling party, a gesture that starts to awaken a possibly decent human being within him.
Cooper, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids sermonizing, and opts for a film that takes its sweet time delivering a message. It’s far from predictable, and nobody in the film is safe. One of the brightest players in what amounts to one of 2017’s greatest, and most underrated, acting ensembles is Ben Foster, who shows up late in the film as Charles, an imprisoned soldier handed off to Joe mid-journey. It’s Joe’s job to lead the murderous Charles to the gallows and, in an undeniable way, Charles represents the horrors of Joe’s past. It’s no surprise that this results in more than one tensely acted scene between Foster and Bale.
Pike makes Rosalie a true symbol of human resilience during harrowing times, while Studi is pure brilliance as Yellow Hawk.
How Max Richter’s haunting soundtrack failed to garner an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Also delivering top-notch work is cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi.
Bale should’ve received an Oscar nomination for his work, too. Joe is the sort of complicated, wounded character he excels at playing, and Bale’s partnership with Cooper—this is their second together after Out of the Furnace—is becoming one of cinema’s more compelling ones.