Hostiles ***

Christian Bale is terrific in this gritty but overlong western. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

A great actor can say a lot without saying anything at all. After "Hostiles," let there be no doubt Christian Bale is a great actor.

Bale's Capt. Joe Blocker is a study in repressed emotion and searing internal pain. It's 1892 in New Mexico, and this former Union soldier is ready to retire. He's spent his post-Civil War career in the untamed American West, tracking, arresting and killing Native Americans who harmed White people. He speaks softly because mere words cannot describe the horrors he has seen. What's interesting about writer/director Scott Cooper's ("Black Mass") film is that we learn through dialog what Joe has done, and why he did it, but we learn the effect it's had on him only by watching Bale, whose facial expressions and mannerisms say more than Joe could ever express verbally.

For example, when Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang) orders Joe to escort a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and the chief’s family to Montana, watch how a look of sorrow and fury overwhelms Joe’s face. Smalls ticks, such as moving his jaw to one side and looking away, suggest extreme unhappiness. He then tells the colonel why he doesn’t want the job, and because his face just emoted as much as it did we realize, and feel, how incredibly difficult this is for him.

Joe has help on the dangerous trip through Apache territory, and needs it. His longtime cohort Tommy (Rory Cochrane) is emotionally spent; Henry (Jonathan Majors) has also been loyal to Joe for years; Rudy (Jesse Plemons) is fresh out of West Point; and Philippe (Timothee Chalamet) just joined the service. They are escorting the chief, his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), and a few others. They also come across a distraught White woman (Rosamund Pike) whose family has just been murdered, so Joe and co. help her.  

Western fans will recognize elements of “Stagecoach” here, but in terms of tone and character it’s similar to “The Searchers” in that Joe is just as much of a savage as Yellow Hawk. Cooper is careful to not pass judgment on either character, and by not making either a hero or villain he allows for an unlikely understanding to form between the two. On a larger level, thematically, Cooper also calls attention to the decline of the American West and mistreatment of Native Americans, which echoes “Dances with Wolves” without being preachy.

Cooper runs into trouble, however, by not giving the 134-minute film a tighter edit. Some scenes run long, while a good number of others should’ve been excised completely because they do nothing to advance the story. A film like “Hostiles” shouldn’t feel this tedious. Let’s hope Cooper, who did well with Bale in “Out of the Furnace” (2013) and directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in “Crazy Heart” (2009), doesn’t make this kind of excess a habit.

Still, “Hostiles” is worth a look for its fine performances and scenic cinematography. And if you get anything from the message of putting yourself in your enemy’s shoes and understanding that perspective, even better.

Did you know?
Bale and Ben Foster, who plays a Union officer sentenced to hang for his crimes, also appeared together in the 2007 “3:10 to Yuma” remake.