Every time I look at Scott Cooper’s career, it gets smaller. The actor-turned-filmmaker made a promising directing debut back in 2009 with his country-music drama Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges his Oscar. Since then, though, Cooper has made the 2013 revenge thriller Out of the Furnace and the 2015 true-crime gangster film Black Mass, both tedious, pretentious, humorless slogs that root around for profound truths in their stories and come up with a lot of dead air. His latest film Hostiles, a piece of awards bait that caught no major award nominations this year, is somewhat more watchable than its two predecessors and even brings back Crazy Heart’s Ryan Bingham to contribute as an actor and a songwriter. Yet this well-intentioned revisionist Western is still a chore to get through.
Set in 1892, the story concerns Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a U.S. Cavalry officer stationed at a fort in New Mexico who passionately hates Native Americans and has to be threatened with the loss of his pension before he accepts presidential orders to escort a sickly, imprisoned Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) to Montana so the old man can die on his ancestral grounds. Blocker grudgingly leaves the fort with a small detachment of soldiers and the chief’s family, along the way picking up Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), a widow who has lost a good chunk of her mind after seeing her family massacred by the Comanche. This motley group must band together to make the long journey, where both the natives and the whites along the way pose a mortal danger.
The small party at this film’s heart would seem to be the chance for some sharply etched character work, but we hardly get to know any of the supporting players because Cooper is more concerned with Blocker and Rosalie coming round to the mission of protecting the Cheyenne in their midst. Among other things, this wastes actors such as Rory Cochrane and Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet as soldiers and Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher as members of the chief’s family. That would be excusable if Cooper succeeded at depicting his main characters. Alas, they remain indistinctly drawn. We don’t see how Blocker squares his pride in exterminating the indigenous populations with his steadfast loyalty to an African-American corporal (played by Dallas product Jonathan Majors) or indeed how that black man came under his command.
Nor is there enough action in this 134-minute epic to paper over all the flaws. Of course, Westerns don’t have to behave like thrillers to maintain our interest. Kelly Reichardt’s 2011 masterpiece Meek’s Cutoff accomplishes this movie’s visual beauty and acknowledgment of the genocide visited on the natives while making virtues out of its austerity and slow pace. Hostiles wants badly to do the same, but all it manages to do is put you to sleep.
Starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. Written and directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R.