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Hostiles review – Christian Bale soldiers on in brutal, beautiful and flawed western

‘A monument of machismo’ ... Christian Bale in Hostiles
‘A monument of machismo’ ... Christian Bale in Hostiles Photograph: Lorey Sebastian, Le Grisbi Productions/Waypoint Entertainment

The sight of a baby being shot is something which sets the tone, the feel, and the body language of this brutal and self-regarding Western from writer-director Scott Cooper, based on an unproduced screenplay by the late Donald Stewart, who scripted the The Hunt For Red October.

It’s undoubtedly a handsome-looking picture, slow of pace, with beautifully, even stunningly composed widescreen images from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and a sinuous score from Max Richter. The violence of the white pioneer and the Native American in the old West are set up against each other, and (tacitly) declared to be of tragic equivalence, though eligible to be redeemed by gestures of good faith and unexpected romantic developments. The beauty of the landscape and the violence of its human inhabitants are evidently supposed, in their respective extremities, to add up to something. But what?

It’s not clear. And it’s not clear if the performances, sincerely and forcefully intended as they clearly are, shed much light on the issue. Christian Bale, so often impassive beneath his whiskers, is an opaque presence, a monument of machismo and self-importance, and the Native American characters are too often ciphers, required to do not much more than provide the scene-setting for the white characters’ emotional journey. Rosamund Pike is a dignified and commanding presence, however, and so is Q’orianka Kilcher (from Malick’s The New World) as Native American woman Moon Deer.

Pike plays Rosalie, a pioneer woman whose homestead in New Mexico is attacked by Comanches and entire family is slaughtered, including her baby in that unthinkably grotesque manner. Beset with grief and horror, Rosalie is to come across army officer Blocker, played by Christian Bale, an habitually ruthless oppressor of the Native American peoples, though certainly someone possessed of military discipline. For political reasons, Blocker has been ordered to release dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and accompany him to his homeland of the Valley Of The Bears in Montana so that he can be properly buried in the land of his ancestors. On the way, and with an accompanying party including Kilcher and a soldier played by Timothée Chalamet, Blocker chances upon poor Rosalie and with a certain undemonstrative gallantry, takes it upon himself to be protector and lead her to safety with this group. They embark on an extraordinarily long and gruelling journey, which is to involve an encounter with a criminal played by Ben Foster.

The final scenes of the movie show Blocker out of uniform and in civilian clothes, as if to imply that his redemption has involved moving away from his military life – whether that is temporarily or permanently isn’t obvious. It sometimes looks as if Cooper thinks that his film can acknowledge and cancel the historical issues of white oppression simply by turning the violence levels up to boiling point, so that the shock of its cruelty, and the virulence of toxic masculinity, combined with the emollient beauty of the surrounding natural world and a growing emotional tenderness between Rosalie and Blocker, will somehow dissolve the great historical wrongs within a romantic narrative of learning and personal discovery. This is a little glib, although the film’s immediate dramatic effects are potent enough and its response to the mysterious grandeur of the Old West is persuasive and heartfelt. A flawed, but interesting drama.

This article titled "Hostiles review – Christian Bale soldiers on in brutal, beautiful and flawed western" was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12 September 2017 06.51am

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