Is the Western still a viable movie genre? Over the past few years, even though lots — mostly low-budgeters — have been made, very few have seen wide theatrical release. I enjoyed, “The Revenant,” “The Hateful Eight,” and “The Magnificent Seven.” I loved the Kiefer Sutherland/Donald Sutherland pairing in “Forsaken,” didn’t know what to make of the cannibal Western “Bone Tomahawk,” walked out on the listless “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” and never made it to the failed horror Western “The Dark Tower.”
The good news is that the Western is alive and well in “Hostiles,” a real change of pace for director Scott Cooper, who has a couple of crime films — “Black Mass” and “Into the Furnace” — and the country music drama “Crazy Heart” under his belt.
“Hostiles” celebrates the basics of a standard Western. Set in 1892, and ranging, territory-wise, from Arizona to Montana, it has cavalry men going against Indians, Indians attacking settlers, and Indian tribes fighting other Indian tribes. There are themes of revenge and retribution, as well as bravery, honor, and doing the right thing running through it.
The film’s brutal opening sequence, of Comanche horse thieves terrorizing an isolated ranch and killing anyone in their way soon cuts to a scene where any violence has already been committed, and a small cavalry unit, led by longtime soldier Captain Blocker (Christian Bale, playing it doleful even in his rare light moments) is rounding up Apaches to be brought to prison at a nearby fort.
It’s there that Blocker’s commanding officer Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) tells Blocker that he is to escort an ailing prisoner, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has been in captivity for seven years, and his family, back to his distant homeland, where he wishes to die.
By this time, Blocker has been revealed to have hatred for all Native Americans. His answer to the colonel’s request: “No.” The colonel’s reply: “That’s an order.” The captain’s retort, “I’m not obeying it.”
Other revelations are that the order comes from President Benjamin Harrison, the captain is nearing retirement, his pension is at risk, and he could be court martialed for refusing. Giving that some thought, Blocker gathers a detail of four men, gets the chief, his son and daughter-in-law, and their two young kids together, and heads north, chaining up the chief as soon as he’s out of sight of the fort.
It’s on the way that they come across the charred ruins and scattered bodies from the horse thief attack at the beginning, and the discovery of one survivor, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who has lost her husband and two daughters, and is now clutching what appears to be a dead baby to her breast. She has hopelessness and grief in her voice and on her face, and it appears that she’s gone mad. She hasn’t, but it’s clear that she’s extremely damaged when Blocker convinces her to come along with them.
It’s here that the film takes shape, becoming a sort of “road movie” with people on horses instead of in cars. Tribulations begin almost immediately. The Comanches are still close by, and the chief says Blocker must unchain him so they can fight them together because “the Comanches will kill all of us; they don’t discriminate.”
Looking tiny out in the vast landscape, the group moves on, stopping at a fort in Colorado for a brief reprieve, where Blocker is asked by Lt. Colonel McGowan (Peter Mullan) if he would take a convicted murderer (Ben Foster) with him and drop him off at the town where he’s to be hanged. He does so, but this, and a later kidnapping are two plot elements that add to the film’s running time without needing to be there. Both could have been left out.
Everything else about it works, from the inclusion of long scenes of quiet talking, often accompanied only by the ambient sounds of nature, to the shifting back and forth from peacefulness to savagery, to the realization that the film’s long physical journey has turned into a kind of spiritual and philosophical quest. Of course, some viewers might not think about that at all. They’ll just be happy to be watching a good old-fashioned Western.