In some respects a timely rumination on healing and bridging divisions, “Hostiles” is a sturdy but unspectacular western, as old adversaries shed animosities through the shared ordeal of a cross-country trek. Christian Bale turns in a solid, stoic performance as a gruff soldier, but writer-director Scott Cooper’s earnest film doesn’t break much ground.
It’s 1892, with the war between the U.S. Army and Native-Americans in its death throes. So Bale’s Captain Joseph Blocker is given the reluctant assignment of escorting a Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico back to their tribal lands in Montana, where the “dying old man” wants to be buried.
The trip, however, turns out to be filled with dangers, beginning with the nihilistic Comanches who have slain the family of Rosalee (Rosamund Pike), who Blocker finds and brings along with them. At a later stop they pick up a court-martialed officer (Ben Foster), which forces Blocker to engage in further self-reflection about not just the men he’s lost, but his own transgressions against Yellow Hawk’s people.
Writer-director Scott Cooper (“Black Mass”) based the concept on a manuscript by the late Donald Stewart, who wrote movies like “The Hunt For Red October” before his death in 1999.
While there’s a strong western foundation – dating back to movies like “The Searchers,” on the one hand, and “Little Big Man” on the other – in examining the mistreatment of Native Americans, “Hostiles” unfolds with a heavy hand. The themes of redemption and forgiveness are both timely and timeless, but the connecting narrative proves a tad episodic, and the erosion of ill feelings and grudging respect, however admirable, doesn’t feel entirely earned.
The action, when it comes, is fierce and brutal. Bale (who also starred in the western remake “3:10 to Yuma”) is quite good, and the movie also boasts a strong if underused cast in the smaller roles, including “Breaking Bad” alum Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet – a likely Oscar nominee for “Call Me By Your Name” – as members of Blocker’s unit, and Adam Beach as Yellow Hawk’s son.
Given its popularity in days of yore and the current abundance of original content, the western has long seemed ripe for a comeback. There have been some signs of that, recently with Netflix’s miniseries “Godless,” but it’s by no means a full-blown stampede.
“Hostiles” feels like a relatively small, tentative step in that direction – a movie with a clear fondness for westerns past that’s unlikely to do much, ultimately, to brighten their future.
“Hostiles” releases nationwide Jan. 26. It’s rated R.