Harsh Westerns aren’t anything new, but there’s an engaging idea hiding beneath the surface in “Hostiles,” a thoroughly barbaric and bleak film from writer / director Scott Cooper.
Set in 1892, the film tells the story of a legendary Army Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) who reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. Setting out on horseback from an isolated outpost in New Mexico, Captain Blocker and his charges encounter a widow (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family has just been savagely murdered. The woman rides with the men as they join forces to navigate the unforgiving landscape and vicious Comanche along the route.
The underlying themes are what make the story so compelling, a tale that blends the vast beauty of the American West with a jolting shock of cruelty from men seeking redemption for their war crimes. Bale, in another exceptional lead performance, gives a nuanced turn as a man wrestling with his own moral ambiguity and racist hatred. He softly yet strongly expresses that not everything is cut and dried or crystal clear during times of war. The themes are punched home with brutal savagery, sudden shootouts, and bursts of violent attacks that feel even more horrifying and real because they tend to come out of nowhere, especially due to the film’s slow pacing.
And that’s where the problem lies: the film takes far too long to tell its story. It quickly becomes a dull bore that could benefit from losing a good 30 minutes of its run time. The film’s length ultimately diminishes its impact and tests the patience of the audience.
“Hostiles” may be flawed in its sluggish storytelling, but it also shines with moments of greatness, most notably the glorious widescreen cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi. This is a handsome looking movie with lofty ambitions and a small budget, and it’s worth seeing if only for these reasons (and Bale’s performance).