The Western has long been a load-bearing genre, with its trademark wide open spaces and lonesome cowboys providing a tantalizing framework for a wide array of dark revisionist takes. Still, there’s weighty, and then there’s ponderous. Hostiles, the latest film from writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass), unfortunately falls into the latter category, telling a fiercely nihilistic tale that never quite reaches its intended level of none-more-black profundity. Despite a number of very good performances and some starkly gorgeous vistas, it slowly, solemnly trots towards pretension.
Adapting a partial manuscript from the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, the plot follows a morally stained cavalry officer (Christian Bale) ordered to escort a terminally ill Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his imprisoned family from New Mexico to their ancestral home in Montana. The mission’s odds of success are not improved when they happen upon the lone survivor (Rosamund Pike) of a prairie homestead massacre.
Bale gives his all, as usual, even if his demeanor curiously never really syncs up with his character’s stated backstory. (For someone introduced as a rabid hater of Native Americans, he sure softens quickly.) As for Studi, the intensity that made his performance in The Last of the Mohicans so indelible is still there in spades, but now with a new aspect of last-breath dignity. He’s not actually given that much to do here, but whenever he’s on screen, you don’t want the camera to move. A deep bench of folks such as Jesse Plemons, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ben Foster, and Timothée Chalamet also make significant supporting contributions, albeit some of them rather briefly. (As a rule, whenever the shot goes ultra-wide, start watching for arrows.)
Capable as the entire cast is, however, their collective efforts ultimately sputter out against Hostiles’ overwhelming, near-airless aura of Importance. As it turns out, there’s only so much that can be done within the confines of a project where every aspect is fraught with significance. I mean, even Blood Meridian had a sense of humor.
For more information about this film, see Movie Times.