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01 Feb 2018

A Daunting Journey: Christian Bale Deserved an Oscar Nom for Dark Western 'Hostiles'

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Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale in Hostiles. Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale in Hostiles.

Director Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is an uncompromising, brutal Western. It makes Clint Eastwood’s classic, somber Unforgiven look like Mary Poppins.

Christian Bale turns in another spellbinding performance as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker. Joe—a quiet, tired, jaded soldier—is spending the closing days of his military career in 1892 capturing and imprisoning Native Americans. He has fought many battles, seen many atrocities, and committed many of his own.

When aging and terminally ill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is granted freedom by the president of the United States, somebody who knows his dialect must be chosen to escort him and his family back to Montana. Joe is the best candidate for the job … but it’s a job he doesn’t want: Joe fought against Yellow Hawk and witnessed him murdering his friend many years ago. The idea of leading a man he sees as the worst of murderers to a graceful death in Montana doesn’t appeal to him; in a scene as tense as any other filmed last year, he says so to his colonel (Stephen Lang) and a stuffy bureaucrat (Bill Camp, who occupies one of the few characters in the film that qualifies as cartoonish). This scene makes it clear that Joe is going to rank among Bale’s best performances … and the movie has barely begun.

Actually, Cooper establishes the unrelenting darkness of the film before the title credit. Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is seen teaching her young children what adverbs are as her husband tends to their farm. In an instant, Rosalie’s family life is decimated by Comanche bandits, who kill her husband and all of her children.

Joe, having no real choice but to lead Yellow Hawk to his homeland (his colonel threatens his pension), reluctantly sets out on the journey with the dying chief, the chief’s family (which includes the terrific Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) and a handful of soldiers. He then stumbles upon a destroyed Rosalie and her dead family at their burned-out homestead. He takes her into their traveling party—a gesture that possibly starts to awaken a decent human being within himself.

Cooper, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids sermonizing, and opts for a film that takes its sweet time delivering its message. The movie is far from predictable, and nobody in the cast is safe. That cast includes soldiers played by Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird), Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) and impressive relative unknown Jonathan Majors. Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused) is a true standout as a longtime fellow soldier of Joe who is battling “the melancholia.”

Adding to one of 2017’s greatest—and most underrated—acting ensembles is Ben Foster, who shows up late in the film as Charles, an imprisoned soldier handed off to Joe mid-journey. It’s Joe’s job to lead the murderous Charles to the gallows; in an undeniable way, Charles represents the horrors of Joe’s past ways. It’s no surprise that this results in more than one tensely acted scene between Foster and Bale.

Pike, who hasn’t done much since her bravura performance in Gone Girl, shows devastating grace and beauty as the mother who loses everything. She makes Rosalie a true symbol of human resilience during harrowing times. Studi is pure brilliance as Yellow Hawk, saying everything with his majestic, chiseled face. He has a moment with Bale near the film’s end that is heartbreaking and beautiful.

How Max Richter’s haunting soundtrack failed to garner an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Also delivering top-notch work is cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who has helped make one of 2017’s better looking films.

Bale deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in this film. Joe is the sort of complicated, wounded character at which he excels, and Bale’s work with Cooper (they also partnered on Out of the Furnace) continues to be one of cinema’s more compelling partnerships.

While Hostiles is far from a fun time at the movies, it’s an essential film for those who like their history served with a fair share of truth and tragedy.

Hostiles is playing at theaters across the valley.

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