Scott Cooper is maybe my favorite actor-filmmaker. In front of the camera, he played a Klan kid in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and the town troublemaker in the Bill Murray vehicle Get Low. Behind the camera, he's written and directed an impressive body of work over eight years: Crazy Heart (2009), the film that finally got Jeff Bridges his Oscar; Out of the Furnace (2013); and Black Mass (2015). The release of that last one occasioned, to my knowledge, the last pairing of the words "great performance" and "Johnny Depp."
Christian Bale, so nuanced and credible as an ex-con struggling to defuse his younger brother in Out of the Furnace, reteams with Cooper for the neo-western Hostiles. The high-intensity Brit plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a veteran cavalry officer stationed at a New Mexico fort in 1892. These are the final days of what historians call the Indian Wars, a term I've always found ironic, suggesting as it does that genocide was their idea.
Blocker is reaching the end of a long military career. He's seen the hell of war at close range. The blood on his hands has blood on it. He's lost close friends. He's withdrawn, haunted, teeming with hatred. What he's not is nuanced or credible.
Like virtually all the film's characters, Blocker is stunningly underwritten, a cardboard cutout with a droopy handlebar. He's a marvel of psychological depth and complexity, however, beside the Native Americans in the movie.
Blocker's mortal foe, the aging Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), has spent the past seven years imprisoned in the fort with his extended family and is dying of cancer. The president has decided it would be a great PR move to let him return to his tribal Montana home to die with dignity. Blocker is ordered to lead an escort party — a final assignment with which he's not pleased.
You see where this is going. And I'm not talking about Montana. At the start of the trip, Blocker forces his enemy and the latter's son (Adam Beach) to ride in chains. But an ambush by Comanches soon makes apparent the advantage of having all hands available for battle — something, strangely, it falls to the old man to point out.
It's the first of many nuggets of wisdom the chief will dispense while his son and daughter-in-law offer moving displays of compassion for a traumatized widow (Rosamund Pike) the group rescues. The same band of Comanches, it turns out, has butchered her family and burned down her house.
Well — are you sitting down? — in no time, it hits Blocker that the Cheyenne are people, too. And I do mean "no time." After decades of waging war with the West's indigenous people, he works side by side with his charges for, I'm guessing, 20 minutes before doing a total turnaround. Not the most subtle or convincing saga of redemption I've seen.
So, what's up with Cooper? Trial and error. He has based most of his past scripts on successful, perceptive best-selling books. In this case, he made the inexplicable decision to rework an unfinished manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart. So what we have is a 135-minute movie about the barbaric birth of a nation from the guy who gave us The Hunt for Red October.
The filmmaker decided to try something new. It turned out to be a big, fat, boring mistake. Hostiles is a revisionist western that could've used some serious revising.