“Hostiles,” a sturdy and characteristically brutal new Western from “Black Mass” director Scott Cooper, begins with somebody shooting a baby — that’s not a spoiler, just a warning. The year is 1892, and a settler named Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) is teaching her young daughters about the magical power of adverbs. Suddenly, their New Mexico homestead is raided by a band of Comanche renegades. They murder her husband, they shoot her two girls, and they fire a bullet directly into her infant son; Rosalee carries the lifeless bundle in her arms for days, because it’s that kind of movie — the only kind that Cooper knows how to make.
A few clicks south, Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale, broiling with his usual rage) is treating his Cheyenne prisoners with a similar degree of savagery. The point couldn’t be clearer, even though “Hostiles” spends the next 130 minutes underlining it with increasingly bold strokes: Hatred is native to us all. Of course, it was the white man who started this particular cycle of robbery and retribution, and it will be the white man who’s going to have to end it one day (don’t hold your breath).
Cooper seems to think he might be that white man. A stiff-lipped story that confronts our country’s most foundational problems with the gravity of someone who thinks he can actually solve them, “Hostiles” has no intention of reinventing the wagon wheel. Like all of the director’s previous work, it’s less interested in saying something new than it is in reiterating something old, only this time in a much deeper voice. Based on a manuscript by the late Donald Stewart (“The Hunt for the Red October”), this is a proudly traditional oater that travels down old trails with new sadism, as though the Western genre only died off because the movies weren’t cruel enough.
After announcing itself as a meditation on how the American soul has been forged by violence, the film begins in earnest when Joseph is tasked with releasing his most infamous prisoner — the cancerous Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) — and escorting the man back to the Valley of the Bears, so that he can be buried in his birthplace. A famous war hero who’s supposedly collected more scalps than Sitting Bird, Joseph has been fighting the Cheyenne for his entire adult life, and his experiences on the battlefield have metastasized into blind hatred. “I know who you are,” he grimaces upon releasing Yellow Hawk from his cell. But the truth is that Joseph doesn’t have the slightest idea. Needless to say, the 1,000-mile trek is going to be quite the learning experience for the captain.
Fortunately, Joseph and Yellow Hawk won’t be going it alone. The former is accompanied by a handpicked squad of soldiers (their ranks including Jesse Plemons and young “Call Me by Your Name” breakout Timothée Chalamet), the latter has his daughter (“The New World” star Q’orianka Kilcher, reuniting with Bale after all these years) and her family. But the fun doesn’t really begin until their second day on the road, when the group comes upon the burned-out husk of the house where Rosalee once lived. She’s shivering, still clutching her baby’s limp body. Joseph makes the executive decision to escort this broken woman to safety, the cowboy displaying a degree of compassion that almost renders him unrecognizable.
And so this motley crew makes their way across the feral American frontier, men always standing in their way. As usual, Cooper poses masculinity as the greatest obstacle to change. Also as usual, he does so by counterintuitively romanticizing the most gendered male behavior: All the men are strong, silent types with thick hides and wounded hearts. Every conversation is a pissing contest, every glance has the potential to explode into carnage. The boys are brutes and the girls are angels (or nags). Joseph keeps Yellow Hawk in shackles; the chief’s daughter consoles Rosalee by gifting her a blanket.
The future of this country depends on emphasizing our commonalities instead of our differences, but such clarity seldom comes easily. Cooper delights in the kind of barbarity that could inspire a white man like Joseph to recognize that wearing a uniform doesn’t preclude him from being part of the problem. The director romanticizes violence while he tries to argue its corruptive influence. Characters aren’t just killed; they’re gutted and hanged. Everyone is shot twice for good measure. When Joseph’s unit fights with the Comanche bandits on their tail, they do so on horseback in close-up combat, the two sides galloping around each other like they’re playing the world’s deadliest game of polo (this scene is very effective). The Wild West has never looked more beautiful, or been more foreboding. “Hostiles” isn’t quite as grim as a Cormac McCarthy novel, but that’s certainly not for lack of trying.
Cooper’s brilliant cast is largely wasted on broad archetypes, and his film slows to a crawl whenever its characters actually start talking to each other (the frequent campfire scenes are interminable exercises in clenched machismo). However, “Hostiles” finds its footing as it begins to reckon with the moral underpinnings of the Western genre. These movies are defined by the lawless and unforgiving world in which they take place, a fiercely contested stretch of desert where the hardest part of staying alive is living with yourself.
And yet, “Hostiles” sees the Wild West as the land of opportunity. Prior to the rise of superhero movies, the Western was the most static and strictly codified genre we had, but the best of them have always leveraged its tropes to illustrate some kind of foundational change. Western heroes are uniquely susceptible to change at the deepest levels. even if they often tend to die in the process; “Hostiles” does a fine job of dramatizing that evolution.
Halfway through the film, Joseph is asked to escort an ax murderer (Ben Foster) to the fort where he’ll be hanged, and the story finds a new gear from that point forward. Joseph, we learn, has a bit of a history with his new charge, and the way that Cooper resolves the relationship between these two men is honest and poetic enough to compensate for a movie that’s otherwise as subtle as a Comanche war raid, and several times as long. If “Hostiles” ultimately resolves as Cooper’s best movie to date; the Western genre finally allows the director to reconcile his flair for violence with his fetish for myth-making. Joseph doesn’t know who Yellow Hawk is, but he learns. And in doing so, he also finds out a little something about himself.
“Hostiles” premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.