Christian Bale anchors old school Western with powerful presence

Rosamund Pike also delivers stellar performance in Hostiles

Hostiles. Written and directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi.  Rating: 8 (out of 10)

If Phantom Thread was truly Daniel Day-Lewis’ last movie, the title of Greatest Living Actor is now vacant; look to Christian Bale at the front of the queue of possible replacements.

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Bale elevates every film he is in to an immersive experience. For example, his performances in American Hustle, The Fighter, The Big Short, and most notably, The Machinist and American Psycho, to say nothing of his resuscitation (with director Christopher Nolan) of the Batman franchise.

Ten years ago Bale starred in one of the decade’s best westerns, 3:10 To Yuma. There he played an upstanding rancher trying to bring an outlaw to justice, in part to earn the respect of his young son. His character in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is about as far from that moral certitude as a man can get.

Capt. Joseph Blocker is a career soldier in the American frontier in 1892, a world wracked by violent conflicts between white settlers and the native peoples slaughtered and displaced by government forces. His face is a leathered map of the horrors he has seen, a casualty of being highly effective at his job.

Joe’s commanding officer gives him one last commission, to transport a Cheyenne chief dying of cancer and incarcerated for more than seven years at the fort back to his ancestral grounds. It’s a compassionate mission, one that has become a “cause celebre” in a more liberal Washington and insisted upon by President Harrison. Joe would rather face a court martial than save Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) – it’s rumoured Joe “took more scalps than Sitting Bull himself” in his career – but with his pension and his reputation at risk, he reluctantly agrees. 

Joe assembles a team to transport Yellow Hawk and his family from New Mexico to Montana, including his most trusted friend Tom (Rory Cochrane). Tom wavers between fond memories of battles won and a crippling guilt over the lives he has taken.

 “It ought not to be this way, Joe,” he says.

“Is there a better way?” Joe asks.

 Hostiles may be the first Western to address PTSD among soldiers in the civil war and western expansion: Tom suffers from “melancholia” to the point that his superiors have taken his weapons from him. “There’s no such thing,” insists Joe, none too encouragingly.

A few days in, the group comes across a shell-shocked woman sitting in the hull of her burned-down homestead, the aftermath of the film’s horrific opening scene. Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) may be beyond saving, but joins the party to be deposited in the next fort town. 

The group grows bigger still after a stop at Fort Winslow, Colorado, where Joe is tasked with the transport of a prisoner (Ben Foster, who also appeared in 3:10 To Yuma).

Joe and the prisoner are not strangers to one another, and the sergeant uses every opportunity to point out that Joe could just as easily be the one in shackles: “We’re all guilty of something, I’m just asking a mercy.”

This presents Joe with a moral quandary and a challenge to his brothers-in-arms loyalty: “You ‘aint who I thought you was,” the prisoner says.

Cooper isn’t attempting to equate raids on individual settlements with the large-scale obliteration of native peoples, surely, though he does acknowledge the savagery as equal on both sides. The failure here is the disparity in characterization between the “white” and “Indian” characters: the former are richly drawn, while the latter are either candidates for sainthood (Yellow Hawk’s party) or violent monsters who use violence indiscriminately (the Comanche).

Bale has worked with Cooper before, as another force of violent nature in Out Of The Furnace. (Co-stars Cochrane, Bill Camp, and Jesse Plemons also appeared in Cooper’s Black Mass). His powerful performance should not obfuscate Rosamund Pike’s, who delivers perhaps a career best here as a grieving wife and mother who comes to forgiveness more readily than the men in her company.

Add to fine performances some beautiful cinematography work by Masanobu Takayanagi, whose wide shots show the desolation, the beauty, the scope of what was possible and what was at stake in the frontier.

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