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Christian Bale, right, and Wes Studi in Hostiles.

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Scott Cooper (based on the manuscript by Donald Stewart)
Directed by
Scott Cooper
Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Adam Beach

There's a lot going on with Hostiles, a dire western from Scott Cooper that pays respect to the horsey genre while subtly expressing a certain amount of skepticism. We have Christian Bale as U.S. Cavalry captain Joseph Blocker, a dedicated, stoic and introverted career officer whose final duty involves a gesture of compassion to which he is profoundly and angrily resistant.

The mission involves a diverse detail of cavalrymen escorting an imprisoned Northern Cheyenne war chief and his family from New Mexico to his tribal land in Montana. The long-haul odyssey is grim and perilous, to the point where both guards and prisoners eventually unite against common foes. There's your message. Bale's character is more nuanced than he initially appears and the actor – no surprise – is up to the challenge.

Director Cooper does an excellent job of creating a nervous, violence-at-any-second mood, but fails with his decision not to give the war chief anywhere near the weight of his cavalry officer counterpart. Like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, the underlying tension involves the protagonist's journey to regain his humanity. Hostiles, a hotbed of hostility for sure, is not without reflection.

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