'Hostiles' Review: Christian Bale Leads A Weary And Grim Western From Scott Cooper [TIFF]

"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." So begins the epigraph of Scott Cooper's Hostiles, a Western that explores America's then-undeveloped territories as a fertile ground for nihilism, despair and self-reflection. Gone is the frontier myth of endless possibility and opportunity, replaced by a plot that is quite literally a march towards death.

As his final assignment, Christian Bale's hardened Captain Joseph Blocker gets charged to return Adam Studi's ailing war chief Yellow Hawk back to his tribe's sacred land in the Montana territory. It's a ferrying operation of the direst degree, and one that Joseph approaches with a fair amount of trepidation. He knows the route and the perils inherent in crossing this way. In order to let Yellow Hawk die with dignity, many others may die along the way getting there.

Joseph is hardly keen on making this sacrifice just for Native Americans. As he bluntly states when receiving his task, "ain't enough punishment for his kind." Yet Cooper never reduces him to an out-and-out racist. The world of Hostiles is assuredly not a black-and-white one, but it's hardly gray, either. Interactions across race, gender and class showcase the full spectrum of human experience. People do not usually subscribe to a strict set of standards to guide their every action – and even for those who do often lapse or have inconsistencies.

This avoidance of anything resembling monotonic character development in Hostiles will either prove energizing or exhausting, depending on an audience's taste. I found myself somewhere in between, especially because Cooper only accesses this level of depth for the white characters. The Native Americans do amount to more than just lifeless background figures, and Cooper even casts the extraordinary Q'orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas in Malick's The New World) to play Yellow Hawk's daughter, Moon Deer. Yet the complexities of their attitudes about the Americans who colonized their land and exterminated many of its occupants never rises to anywhere near the level of thought given to the white characters. It's not as if Hostiles presents the film from a highly specific point of view, either, so the avenue for an excuse does not exist.

The film's X-factor has to be Rosamund Pike's Rosalie Quaid, due in large part to the fact that the film depicts the trauma that forms her worldview. Hostiles opens with a bloody scene depicting a tragedy befalling her family, and Joseph's crew finds her still reeling from the trauma. There's never a secret why she digs graves with a feral intensity or fires bullets into the corpse of a Native American, even when no rounds are left in the gun. Rosalie serves as the most conventional access point for empathy in a film that depicts a world where such a force is largely absent. In a sea of cynicism and anguish, Pike is a most buoyant life raft.

Both she and Joseph have their reasons to fear the natives, and a certain amount of mistrust does accompany their journey through the uncharted land. Yet over time, they all arrive at the conclusion that something does unite them – the certainty of death. Cooper never forces the "kumbaya" moment of cross-cultural understanding that so many filmmakers deem necessary to bridge such divides. Instead, the bond develops organically so that when it solidifies, their teaming up does not feel like a plot contrivance.

Bale, with a face transformed ever so slightly to reflect his world-weariness, is an ideal guide for such a harrowing passage. Joseph recognizes that the only victories available to people in his situation are Pyrrhic ones, so he comforts himself in the knowledge that the only thing he can trust is his own authority. Hostiles features far more big narrative events and skirmishes than the usual existential, moody tone poem, and it has two effects. The first is that it unfortunately makes the film a little uneven, but the second (and more positive) is that it gives Bale and his companions plenty of opportunities to brood over their actions and treatment of the Native population.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10