It’s been suggested that “Hostiles” is the greatest Western since “Unforgiven.”
As a fan of “True Grit” and “Appaloosa,” I’m not totally on board with this; but the new film surely is the most thought-provoking entry in that time-tested genre since Clint Eastwood stormed the Oscars in 1993.
And despite its shattering shoot-outs, “Hostiles” may also be the quietest, most low-key Western ever made.
Directed by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), the film stars Christian Bale as a cavalry officer assigned to escort a dying Cheyenne back to his homeland.
Since Capt. Blocker lost several fellow-soldiers to this same Indian warrior, it’s all he can do to submit to this direct order from President Harrison. And then, just as he and his deputies begin their trek, they come upon a farmstead that was burned and pillaged by Apaches, leaving everyone dead except the now-desperate widow (Rosamund Pike). Later on, Blocker agrees to transport a murderous prisoner -- and his party’s overland odyssey is then plagued by various attacks and crises that I won’t reveal.
With this relatively straightforward storyline, “Hostiles” is both a very modern Western and a very traditional one.
I was deeply moved by the old-fashioned courtesy, chivalry and even gallantry these hardened soldiers extend to Pike’s grieving wife and mother. Blocker is resolute, courageous and compassionate, but he has a nasty past marred by extreme cruelty in campaigns against Native Americans; in fact, he has often engaged in the very same viciousness he hates so much when used by Indians like the one he’s escorting.
Both Blocker and his men must come to terms with the way these Native Americans have been treated by the government; and this transformation is aided by the unlikely but tender-hearted friendship that springs up between Pike’s widow and the Cheyenne family in Blocker’s group.
Yet despite painting broadly in gray rather than black-and-white, Cooper nonetheless draws a line between justified and unjustified killing, between moral and immoral conduct -- though it remains an open question which term applies to Blocker’s final action as a soldier.
“Hostiles” also is old-fashioned in its determination to avoid certain explicit content; though there is strong violence, some of the most distressing material is never shown at all.
I went to this film largely to see Pike, whose career finally seems to be taking off after years of obscurity that persisted despite her 2014 Oscar nom for "Gone Girl" (Pike currently has four new films in the works).
Bale is good, but Pike is sensational, baring her soul in a blaze of grief and love that pours off the screen. I think this is her finest performance; and there’s other good work by such veteran character actors as Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons and Ben Foster.
Filled with long silences and grim, thoughtful close-ups, “Hostiles” will strike some as slow; but given the movie’s weighty issues, and its contemplative way of handling them, I felt Cooper was wise in giving us room to think and ruminate.
It’s what many of the finest Westerns have done; and “Hostiles” certainly belongs in that category.
directed by Scott Cooper
Run time: 134 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated R for strong violence, and language