When Christian Bale likes a director, he tends to stick with him, and now, having made multiple films with directors like Christopher Nolan, Terence Malick and David O. Russell, he reunites with his Out Of The Furnace director Scott Cooper for uncompromising Western Hostiles.
Set in the 1890’s, Bale stars as Captain Joseph J Blocker, a legendary Calvary officer twisted by years of war against Native American armies.
He is tasked with what he views as a cruel assignment, to escort his sworn enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), on a long journey to Montana where the ailing leader will be able to die among his people.
Picking up a traumatised widow (Rosamund Pike) along the way, dangers from within and without threaten to derail Blocker’s mission.
From very early on it’s clear that director Scott Cooper intends intends to bring the gritty, blood-spattered reality of America’s past to life.
One of the earliest scenes features children being brutally slaughtered, and that sets the tone for a film that repels as much as it astounds.
The beauty of the cinematography clashes with the brutality of the mission, which looks upon the suffering with an unflinching stare. For all the confrontations and cruelty, there is a seed of hope in the way that the characters develop over time, but boy does it take a while to get there.
Cooper is in no rush, and while the action can never be described as boring, the pace can make things a bit of a slog.
There’s also the tricky matter that much of the film is viewed through the eyes of the white characters. Their Native American counterparts serve mainly to help Bale and Pike along their personal journeys which seems slightly uncomfortable for a film with reconciliation, or at least understanding, at the heart of its narrative.
Despite these drawbacks, there’s a lot to admire in the performances.
After his time as a blockbuster star, Bale seems to enjoy films that allow him to be somewhat quieter. Blocker is a slow-burning, brooding man whose pain is carved into his expressions, rather than long-winded speeches.
You believe that this is someone capable of great cruelty, but who also has been left changed by the things he has seen and done. Just as impressive is Pike, going through the mill as someone who, in a very different way, has suffered just as much as Blocker.
As with his previous work like Crazy Heart and Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s western is more about the people who inhabit the story than the story itself. Happily those people are on top form, with Bale in particular subtly reminding you of how great he can be with the right material. For those made of the right stuff, Hostiles will linger long in the memory.
Hostiles is out in the UK on 5 January.