Hostiles is writer-director Scott Cooper's fourth film. His first three (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass) have ranged from okay-to-pretty good, with Crazy Heart being the best and Black Mass being the worst. But all three of those efforts felt to varying degrees that they could have been at least a little better. Hostiles continues that trend. It's an interesting film, but it feels like it doesn't fully live up to its potential.
Christian Bale plays Capt. Joseph Blocker, an army man circa 1892 nearing retirement. His reputation has been built on his ferocity during battles with Native Americans. But when the film starts, that war is becoming less fashionable in the eyes of the public and he is ordered to escort a dying war chief prisoner (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die and be buried in his homeland.
Along the way, Bale and his men find a woman (Rosamund Pike) whose husband and three children have been slaughtered by Native Americans. Slowly, Bale and Pike form a bond. Their relationship is one of the better parts of the film. It develops slowly and believably. They've both lived through hell and are looking for anything to cling to in order to stave off complete despair.
There are also interesting themes about what happens when a man who has spent most of his adult life committing government-sanctioned acts of violence is suddenly told to stop. The conclusion of the film is handled gracefully with a shot that makes it clear what will happen to Bale without underlining it or hammering the point home.
But there are also times when the movie simply feels like a junior league version of Unforgiven. It's commendable whenever any movie tackles the toll that participating in or witnessing violence takes on the human soul, but there are scenes and lines of dialogue (especially a monologue delivered by Rory Cochrane as Bale's right-hand man) that are lifted a little too directly from Clint Eastwood's 1992 classic.
Those complaints aside, Bale and Pike's performances give the film a human core and fans of westerns should check out Hostiles.