There’s a pall cast over “Hostiles,” Scott Cooper’s deadly serious Western in which a Cavalry officer with a history of fighting Native Americans on the late 19th century frontier is tasked with the indignity of escorting a Cheyenne war chief from New Mexico to Montana.
This is a genre movie with a purpose and themes to explore and it never deviates from them for anything approaching softball entertainment. It’s a miserable journey for all involved, wracked with inner turmoil and existential dread, and sometimes you wish the filmmaker (who also wrote the script) had lightened up the proceedings just a touch or two. But within the tradition of revisionist Westerns, in which a generation of movies have effectively apologized for the casual racism and tremendous oversimplifications of the genre in its classic form, “Hostiles” finds a worthy place in the canon.
That’s thanks to Christian Bale, who plays Joseph J. Blocker, the captain, with a brooding intensity in which his strong negative feelings about the mission he’s been assigned aggressively clash with his profound sense of duty. His character is driven both by persistent guilt at his own actions and genuine feelings of rage derived from a lifetime spent watching his men violently slaughtered to no real end.
The production values are similarly top-notch: The spare cinematography emphasizes the harshness of the landscapes, while the spasms of sudden violence infuse the movie with a great sense of discomfort.
Most importantly, it’s genuinely hopeful in the way it amalgamates small signposts on Joseph’s journey into the story of a man transitioning from angry despair to some measure of forgiveness and redemption.