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Movie review: In 'Hostiles,' an ambitious old-school Western, Christian Bale seems to channel Clint Eastwood

By: Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
January 26, 2018 Updated: January 26, 2018 at 4:35 am
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Christian Bale in "Hostiles." MUST CREDIT: Lorey Sebastian, Yellow Hawk, Inc.-Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Scott Shepherd, Wes Studi; directed by Scott Cooper; 127 minutes; R for strong violence and crude language.

Christian Bale delivers a tough, engulfing performance in "Hostiles," a rich Western in which writer-director Scott Cooper marshals old-school wide-screen classicism for boldly revisionist themes.

This ambitious demonstration reminds viewers mourning the retirement of Daniel Day-Lewis that a supremely qualified performer is available to assume the mantle of our finest living screen actor.

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 Montana homeland. An inveterate warrior who hates the Native Americans he's fought for decades, Blocker initially declines the job. But his reputation and pension are at stake, and soon he's headed north with his best men, a fresh-faced recruit and, eventually, a criminal accused of murder and a grief-crazed widow.

With its linear, mission-centric plot and archetypal characters, "Hostiles," adapted from a manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart ("Missing"), bears more than passing resemblance to such towering John Ford classics as "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers," an affinity underlined by the sweeping landscape and kinetic action captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. With his hard-bitten squint and scowling detachment, Bale seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood at his most enigmatic and reserved; like Eastwood and his characters, Bale lets the camera and his fellow characters come to him.

He's matched by a superior supporting cast of actors who deliver equally assured performances, even when their characters feel machined to make a point about tolerance and hypocrisy. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, Ben Foster and Timothée Chalamet are all on hand; Rosamund Pike delivers a searing portrayal of trauma at its most physically excruciating and psychically disorienting. (The film's opening scene, in which we witness the source of her loss, is staged with sanguinary, savage realism.)

Excellent, too, are Studi and Adam Beach, Xavier Horsechief, Q'orianka Kilcher and Tanaya Beatty, who play Yellow Chief's family. Unfortunately, in a story about overcoming reflexive fears to find human commonalities, they're relegated to the background as the narrative asks the audience to believe in sudden reversals and changes of heart, as well as nearly 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 nonetheless engages the genre's conventions in ways that feel alert and timely. The wretched cycle of violence and retribution, and the carnage it regurgitates, are still very much 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."

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