At about the 10th scene that finds its principal cast gathered around a campfire silently distrustful of one another, it starts to feel like Hostiles, the new Western from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, could have focused more effort elsewhere.
It is late-1800s New Mexico; a post-Wounded Knee, post-Little Big Horn world where the white settlers simply take whatever land they want and the Indigenous people are understandably (like, 100 percent understandably) pissed. But when aging US Army Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is forced to free and transport a dying Native prisoner named Chief Yellow Hawk (hometown hero Wes Studi) to Montana so he can die of cancer in peace and among his people, the divisions between mankind slowly fade and everyone involved learns valuable lessons—or dies trying.
Along for the ride are various other soldiers and Yellow Hawk's family, plus the recently widowed and childless Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family was cut down by Natives not of Yellow Hawk's ilk. Every step of the way is rife with further terror, and every mile gained seems to present new obstacles; from racial tensions and violent fur trappers to ruthless fellow soldiers and the unforgiving elements.
Hostiles is an absolutely gorgeous view of New Mexico and the hardscrabble way of life during the era, but when it comes right down to it, the bigger picture it tries to present winds up feeling diluted. Yes, Bale is the draw here, and we get how the business of movies works, but Studi's performance as the once-formidable Yellow Hawk could have hit much harder had they given him a few more lines or some definitive kick-ass moment. We're honestly left to believe that Bale's character just kind of comes to release his hatred toward Indigenous people by the end with very little input from Yellow Hawk, other than a thoughtful word here or there. Seriously, though, one solid speech from Studi could have completely turned this thing around.
Which isn't to say it's all bad. Breaking Bad alum Jesse Plemons comes in with a solid supporting role, and Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) shows up briefly as an unexpected villainous type who does have an interesting point about who ought cast the first stone. Even Pike's ultimate badass moment makes some otherwise bizarre missteps with her character totally worth it. Sad, though, that the narrative skews more toward the white folk, even if they're presented as monsters more often than not—but we certainly won't say our perspective on a number of things didn't shift.
+New Mexico on full display
Directed by Cooper
With Bale, Studi, Pike, Plemons and Foster
Violet Crown, R, 134 min.