The American Western has, since some time around the late 1940s, been a genre about loss. Because it dealt with a time that was still within living memory in its movie heyday, the nostalgia was acute. Other historical films — stories of knights or pirates or European revolution —were so far removed that they had already transformed into myth. But the aging Westerner was so close to our culture that, to borrow a familiar image from the genre, we could almost see him walking into the sunset.
For the last quarter-century or so, the same could be said about the nearly extinct genre itself. Any filmmaker turning his sights on the American West in the 21st century knows that he's dealing with a time and place that is now doubly lost, gone in time and largely absent from contemporary film culture.
Scott Cooper's Hostiles begins under the shadow of one of the genre's key works, John Ford's 1956 The Searchers, arguably the most complex American Western and a definitive statement on the racism that can hardly be separated from the romantic myth of the frontier. Cooper's film begins, like Ford's, with Comanches attacking an isolated frontier prairie home. Unlike the start of Ford's film, it's a scene of blunt, raw violence, with no worldly Ethan Edwards present to interpret the carnage for us.
Adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Donald E. Stewart, Hostiles is the story of a small group on a dangerous journey from New Mexico to Montana. Army captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), no admirer of native Americans, is ordered to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a dying Cheyenne chief, back to his tribal home. Along the way, Blocker and his team pick up the deeply traumatized Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the survivor of the opening massacre, and encounter a variety of threats, from marauding Comanches to the internal fighting of the travelers.
It's almost like two separate movies, one a traditional Western about the dangers of traveling through wild and unknown territory, the other a more existential drama about guilt and loyalty. Director Cooper made a strong debut with the 2009 Crazy Heart, but his subsequent films have floundered in violence and murky ethics. The same could almost be said of Hostiles. Cooper comes dangerously close to a kind of self-indulgent nihilism not entirely justified by the story. It's brutal and somewhat artless, but that seems to be deliberate.
But for all of the violence and the inevitability of the moral reversal of its ending, Hostiles overcomes its stiff beginning and makes a convincing case for Blocker's redemption. There's a refreshing solemnness to it, a sense that the characters have been forced to think about life and death and consequences beyond the simple dynamics of their daily actions. Though the conclusions may seem obvious, they're given a convincing sense of humanity through the performances of Pike, the proud, avuncular Studi and the frequently problematic Bale.
Christian Bale is a very strange kind of movie star, one who sometimes seems to wear a visible disdain for his own craft. He's sullen and gravelly, but here he balances those qualities with a surprising gracefulness. He doesn't have much to say, but he can express his thoughts just as well with a twitch of his mouth or a slight disgusted frown. In other films, most notably the Batman series, his grouchiness is so extreme that is seems like a caricature, but in Hostiles he's balanced the edginess with a well-needed dose of humility. We expect Cooper's script to lead Blocker to some kind of spiritual redemption, but Bale makes sure we see that he's not going to get there without putting up a fight.