If you saw either of director Scott Cooper's first two films - Crazy Heart or Out of the Furnace - then his latest work, a bleak but faithfully and earnestly made Western, will feel like part of a natural progression.
Those two films (yes, I'm casting aside 2015's Black Mass) brought Western themes to the present day. It is fitting, I suppose, that Hostiles weaves modern sensibilities in to a late 19th century setting. For all its conscientiousness, Hostiles tells an archetypal Western story - one that would have fit snugly in a John Ford film a half-century ago.
Christian Bale, who also starred in Out of the Furnace, plays a war-weary Army officer, Capt. Joseph Blocker, tasked with escorting a hated enemy, Wes Studi's Chief Yellow Hawk, and his family from New Mexico to his native Montana in the dying days of the frontier. It is 1892, and this is supposed to be Blocker's last job before he retires. Resistant as he might be to chaperoning an old foe, Blocker is compelled to follow orders. Then, he gets much more than he bargained for, first when he stumbles upon a traumatized widow (Rosamund Pike's Rosalie Quaid) whose entire family has been slaughtered by Indian bandits, and then when he adds court-martialed fellow soldier sentenced to death (Ben Foster's Sgt. Wills) to his ever-expanding entourage.
Bale - maybe our finest working actor now that Daniel Day-Lewis has hung 'em up - could sleepwalk his way through this kind of role and still bring plenty to the table. Blocker is a humorless, lethal man with the kind of vaguely referenced Indian-killing bona fides that would have made him a war criminal in the next century. There's more than a little Ethan Edwards to him, and yet Bale does manage to infuse bits of his own persona to the part. One wonders what he might have done with a slightly more imaginatively drawn character, though the ever-present dangers on the trail to Montana are enough to prevent such thoughts from lingering very long.
Studi and Foster - neither strangers to this kind of genre piece - are similarly reliable. It is Pike who, at times, elevates the film. Her character is also archetypal - that of the homesteader who loses everything - but her performance is unexpectedly textured and emotional, from the broken woman clinging to her child long after it has died at the start of the trail to the shotgun-wielding brawler at its end. Pike was the glue in Gone Girl, and she is similarly critical in Hostiles, an entirely different kind of picture. More of her, please.
As for the whole of the film, this is one I would recommend it to folks like me who long for an unlikely return to glory for the genre. For the rest of you? I am just not sure. Cooper is a capable craftsman, although this is not his best work. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's sweeping, breathtaking landscapes are a sight to behold - again conjuring visions of the CinemaScope with which The Searchers was shot.
But like most of the few mainstream Westerns made of late, Hostiles seems to be in conversation with fans, with classics in the genre, with just what a Western should be in a time when the American conquest of the West is viewed quite a bit more soberly. It is a conversation that often talks over the story itself.
As a fan of the genre, I find the conversation fascinating, but I am not sure it means this is a particularly good film. And I do not know where that leaves you if you are not as interested in the conversation as I am - as tuned in to a Ford reference here or a John Wayne allusion there. Heck, I am not quite sure where it leaves me or the genre. If Westerns of this era are mostly speaking and facing backward to a bygone golden age, then I don't really know what to make of the genre any longer.