Hostiles movie review: The reason Christian Bale is the greatest Hollywood actor of his generation

Hindustan Times | ByRohan Naahar, New Delhi
Feb 23, 2018 10:49 AM IST

Hostiles movie review: Christian Bale delivers one of the most understated performances of his storied career in Scott Cooper’s uncompromisingly grim Western.

Director - Scott Cooper
Cast - Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet
Rating - 4/5

Christian Bale wrestles with morality in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles.
Christian Bale wrestles with morality in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles.

There is a deep melancholy that runs through Hostiles, and essentially every film by Scott Cooper, that defies explanation. The filmmaker only seems to make the sort of movies industry ‘experts’ insist are becoming less viable by the year. His latest is not only uncommonly grim for a mainstream picture starring a mainstream movie star, but it is also a Western, a genre that has famously fallen from the audience’s good graces, unless, of course, Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers are somehow involved.

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Barely five minutes go by before Hostiles announces, with gut-wrenching ferocity, what kind of film it is going to be - massive both thematically and visually, and uncompromisingly brutal in its outlook. We see the family of Wesley Quaid getting attacked by native Americans on horseback. They charge with arrows drawn, unleashing war cries that sear through the quiet. Quaid commands his wife to run, and to take their three children - one of whom is an infant - away from the onslaught. She doesn’t get far. Her husband is shot and scalped within her earshot, as are her two young daughters. She barely manages to escape with her baby.

Rosamind Pike plays a suicidal widow in Hostiles.
Rosamind Pike plays a suicidal widow in Hostiles.

The story of Rosalie Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, is one of the many threads Cooper weaves within Hostiles. Through the course of its languid two odd hours, several characters enter the picture - all of whom are either literally or metaphorically headed towards the final destination - and even more exit it.

The one constant whose duty it is to shepherd these souls - an ageing tribal chief to his village, a disgraced soldier to the gallows, and Rosalie Quaid to safety - is Captain Joseph Blocker, played by Christian Bale. But he has his own journey to complete - one that until recently didn’t involve the responsibility of escorting men and women.

Hostiles is Bale’s second film with Cooper. I wrote about their previous movie, Out of the Furnace, recently. Looking closely, it would appear that both movies are essentially about the same themes - broken characters trudging through life, wordlessly accepting whatever is thrown at them, and fighting back when it becomes impossible to take more abuse. Underneath their rugged exterior, they’re both morality tales about men having to compromise on their beliefs.

Christian Bale giving competition to Hercule Poirot.
Christian Bale giving competition to Hercule Poirot.

And both films are anchored by two of the finest, unusually understated Christian Bale performances you’re likely to see. Famously, he’s the sort of actor whose method invariably overshadows every conversation about him. But range is what he has in droves. There is little that remains to be said about Bale’s talents that hasn’t already been said, numerous times. I called him the greatest Hollywood actor of his generation in that Out of the Furnace piece, because unlike several of his contemporaries, he knows that the power of silence is often more resilient than scene-stealing bravura.

Notice how he twitches his mouth in Hostiles - hidden beneath a moustache that could inspire Hercule Poirot to do better - and his eyebrows. Notice the jitters in his eyes. Blocker isn’t a man fully in control, even though Bale is. This is a performance that will likely be forgotten amid the dozens of louder ones he’s delivered, as will this movie, but that is perhaps what makes Scott Cooper such a rarity.

Scott Cooper reunites with his cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi.
Scott Cooper reunites with his cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi.

Each of his films, with the exception of his first, Crazy Heart, has brought to the American mainstream stories about people living off the beaten track. These are characters who do not operate by the law - mostly in the symbolic sense, but in the case of Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, also quite literally. They’re working class, everyday folk, the sort of people actual movie characters would order coffee from or pay to have their cars washed by.

Despite what it thinks about the world - there are several not-so-subtle comments made about Donald Trump’s Red State America - Hostiles is a rewarding movie that deserves to be given a shot. It might not be as great as Bale’s other Western, 3:10 to Yuma, but boy does it come close.

Watch the Hostiles trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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