Christian Bale delivers a tough, quietly engulfing performance in “Hostiles,” a Western in which director Scott Cooper uses old-school widescreen classicism to serve boldly revisionist themes.
Bale plays Capt. Joseph Blocker, a legend of the U.S. cavalry who in 1892 is assigned to escort dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from Fort Berringer, N.M., to the chief’s tribal homeland in Montana. Blocker, who has built up reserves of hatred for the Native Americans he’s fought for decades, initially declines the assignment. But his military reputation and pension are at stake, and soon he’s on the road north with a team of his best men, a fresh-faced recruit and, eventually, a criminal accused of murder and a widow half-crazed with grief.
With its mission-centric plot and archetypal characters, “Hostiles” bears more than passing resemblance to towering John Ford classics such as “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers.” With his hard-bitten squint and studied air of detachment, Bale seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood at his most enigmatic and reserved.
He’s matched by a supporting cast that delivers equally assured performances. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, Ben Foster and Timothée Chalamet are all on hand for some duration of the journey; Rosamund Pike delivers a searing portrayal of trauma at its most physically excruciating and psychically disorienting.
Unfortunately, in a story about overcoming reflexive fears and animus to discover human commonalities, the actors who play Yellow Chief’s family are relegated to the background of a narrative that asks the audience to believe in sudden reversals and changes of heart, as well as every ambush, abduction, near-rape and showdown in the Western playbook.
Like “Unforgiven” and “The Revenant,” Cooper’s film raises the question of when a cliché becomes a trope. Although “Hostiles” has its share of the former, it engages the conventions of the genre — including ideas about male honor and egotistical frailty — in ways that feel alert and timely. The wretched cycle of violence and retribution, and the carnage it regurgitates, are still with us, as the D.H. Lawrence quote that Cooper chooses as an epigraph attests: “The essential American soul,” he wrote, “is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
Rated R for strong violence and crude language. 2:07. AMC Classic, Fayette, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond.