'Hostiles' film review: Unromantic Western grounded in Bale's strong performance
Set against the lawless American frontier and powered by a commanding turn by Christian Bale, the Western drama "Hostiles" (presented during 2017 AFI FEST and opening in select cities Dec. 22) examines the emotional toll war and violence has on soldiers and those caught in the crossfire of battle.
In short: In the late 1800s, Army captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) - a veteran of the Indian Wars - must escort a Cheyenne chief and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana. Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster and Timothée Chalamet also star.
The classic cinematic Western thrived because its formula was simple: white hats versus black hats. Upon first meeting Capt. Blocker, he seems like a one-note character: an embittered Indian hunter who righteously killed Indians that have slaughtered soldiers and pioneers - while Blocker commits atrocities of his own. To the credit of writer-director Scott Cooper ("Black Mass," "Crazy Heart") and Bale, "Hostiles" fleshes out the protagonist into a truly human and grounded character. Blocker is a renowned Army captain, but Bale's performance is firmly rooted in the wounded and broken humanity of the Indian killer who must face his demons during his final mission of goodwill to benefit a sworn enemy. Bale's performance reflects the multifaceted Army captain - a Captain sworn to duty, a weary soldier and a righteous killer. He moves with an intense
The strength of "Hostiles" is its uncompromised commitment to the grim toll war takes on soldiers, from the inexperienced to the war-weary. Capt. Blocker embodies many aspects of prolonged war: he is celebrated as a hero but has committed act as violent as his avowed enemies. He has killed out of duty, but righteous murder combined with losing many friends during what amounts to a protracted insurgency has warped Blocker. The film remains committed to its thesis from start to finish, letting this one last mission deeply affect and fundamentally change its characters as they face the brutality of life on the frontier.
While the film remains on message, "Hostiles" is uneven in its narrative flow. The overall story tracks the "get the chief home" plot, however, the film forgoes one narrative threat for another halfway through the runtime. One antagonistic threat is unceremoniously abandoned, only for Blocker's small band of soldiers then picks up a brand new antagonist. This makes the film feel like two short films stitched together in the middle.
Disgraced Sergeant Charles Wills (Foster) might be the single biggest flaw of the film. While he serves as a tragic mirror for Blocker - two men with blood on their hands, where one is a hero and the other is condemned - all of his dialogue is on-the-nose to the point of being artless. Whereas themes of the story are often reflected by the other character's struggle to deal with the violent aftermath of bloody plot turns, Wills mostly just pointedly explains what his character embodies. It's a frustratingly lazy manner of handling a character with a ton of unrealized pathos potential for Blocker.
Final verdict: Bleak & morally grey, "Hostiles" is the antithesis of the John Wayne western. Bale deserves attention for his complex and nuanced performance, as does Pike for a role that pushes her to a very dark place.
"Hostiles" screened during the 2017 AFI FEST and opens in select cities Dec. 22. The Western-drama has a running time of 135 minutes and is rated R for strong violence, and language.