Christian Bale is, for better and worse, one of the most authentic, honest actors working in Hollywood today, whose approach to acting often mirrors that of Meryl Streep. Streep delves deeply inside her characters and refuses to rise to the surface with anything less than an authentic performance, a performance that often is so brimming with honesty that on occasion I've found myself watching one of her films thinking to myself that she'd actually made a film less watchable precisely because her performance was so damn honest.
August: Osage County, for honest.
Bale is, to a lesser degree, a similar type of performer. Bale's work in writer/director Scott Cooper's Hostiles is, quite simply, rather extraordinary. It's a performance that radiates honesty and authenticity and such finely nuanced character development that it's as if Bale sat down and learned everything he possibly could about Captain Joseph Blocker and refused to bring anything less to the big screen.
Unfortunately, if we're being incredibly honest here, Captain Joseph Blocker isn't a particularly "entertaining" kind of character to watch, for much of the film a mumbling sort of hostile fellow with a melancholy aura that makes one think that maybe, just maybe, Blocker was the actual founder of the whole goth scene. It's not a bad performance. In fact, quite the opposite. Bale is almost too good here and the film's bright, poetic lensing of Masanobu Takayanagi at times seems to overwhelm his more muted, desert dry performance.
Hostiles takes place in 1892, Captain Blocker is a U.S. Army Captain who's had more than his share of deadly encounters with America's natives, both brutally giving and brutally receiving the violence. Reluctantly, he agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne Chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and the chief's family back to tribal lands accompanied by Private "Frenchie" DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet), recent West Point grad Lieutenant Kidder (Jesse Plemons), Master Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), and old friend Corporal Woodson (Jonathan Majors), a Buffalo Soldier. Along the way, they come across an obviously traumatized Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose ill-fated family we meet early on in the film.
It's worth mentioning again that Bale does tremendous work here, his performance as Captain Blocker the kind of performance that doesn't win much in the way of awards because it's irritating and abrasive and non-showy and, yeah, completely and utterly honest. Bale gives a decidedly intimate performance, no small task given the rather intense amount of violence that unfolds in Hostiles. It's a shame, really, because this is one of the finest performances of Bale's career, easily topping the critically acclaimed American Hustle.
It's a pity, really, that in this day and age when just about anyone with a few bucks can set up shop with a film site that far too often "I don't like the performance" has become synonymous with "It's not a good performance." They're not one and the same and any film journalist who tells you they are doesn't deserve your time or attention.
The truth is I didn't much care for Bale's Captain Blocker, but I found Bale's performance as Blocker completely mesmerizing. Bale masterfully captures the PTSD-like weariness of a soldier who's killed too many, almost been killed too many times, and whose superiors are doing nothing more than playing a game of chess with Bale as one of the pawns. While director Scott Cooper doesn't quite always nail the tonal balance needed here, it's no small task to weave together a tale of redemption, a tale of healing, a tale of compassion, and an authentic and stunningly brutal tale devoid of the usual American West romanticization that makes you feel what it was like to live in the skins of both soldiers and natives for whom violence was around the corner of every word, every choice, and every movement.
There are times it will feel like you're watching an Eastwood film, Outlaw Josey Wales specifically comes to mind, though the kind of morality tale that unfolds here isn't anything you would ever find in an Eastwood film.
Rosamund Pike also does some remarkably fantastic work here as the highly traumatized Rosalie, while the always remarkable Wes Studi is a welcome presence as Yellow Hawk. To Cooper's credit, several Native American actors are working here and their presence adds another layer of authenticity to the film even if they're inhabiting characters who don't get the development they deserve. Ben Foster, who's never met a crazed criminal in a western that he couldn't play, manages to do it once again in a way that convinces.
Hostiles isn't a film for the casual moviegoer. It's not a film for the casual fan of western films. Hostiles is a film for hardcore devotees of relentlessly honest American cinema that refuses to compromise and isn't hesitant to unnerve you and to make you face the harsh, honest reality of an American West that was anything but romantic.
While Bale is unlikely to get the recognition he deserves here, rest assured that Hostiles features one of the best performances of Bale's outstanding career. He plays every note absolutely right and the end result is that this remarkably brutal, violent film is a stunning and poetic essay on redemption, understanding and common ground.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic