There is dour. Then there is grim. Then there is bleak. Then there is despair. Then there is "Hostiles."
Last year's film slate (of which this is technically part) was noted for its raft of downbeat, depressing movies. Even against that yardstick, though, "Hostiles" still must be assessed as one of the most intensely melancholic. If it's possible to have an uplifting cinematic experience while mired in tragedy, then here it is.
Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a weary cavalry soldier and legendary Indian hunter who is about to retire. He's virulently racist, alcoholic, burnt out. Absent circumstances presented in the course of the story, he'd probably drink himself into a lonely, hateful death within a year or two.
But his commander orders him to perform one last service: escorting Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Comanche war chief who is now dying of cancer, and has received permission to take his family to their ancestral home in Montana to be at final piece. The kicker: Blocker and Yellow Hawk were bitter enemies during the Indian wars, and each can count many friends and loved ones who perished at the other's hand.
Their journey begins in silence and defiance. Others are picked up along the way. Ben Foster plays Charles Wills, a disgraced soldier who has been sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. Blocker knows him, too, from the old days.
More affecting is the presence of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a frontier woman whose husband and children were just slaughtered in front of her eyes. When the group first encounters her, Rosalie is squatting in the burned-out wreckage of her home, the cold corpse of her baby clutched to her chest. Slowly-- very slowly -- she comes out of her shell of despair, and starts to make meaningful new connections.
Adam Beach shines as Black Hawk, son of Yellow Hawk, who is always his father's son but also reaches out to the bitter white man who hates his kind. The rest of the background players fill their places with conviction and purity, among them Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chalamet.
Writer/director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") has given us a beautiful, spare vision of the American West on the cusp of the 20th century. Though it is a story of specific people, they are dealing with many of the issues we still face today: tribal conflict, racial enmity, gendered roles, etc.
In many ways, "Hostiles" is a portrait of all the capacities America holds, both for greatness and for wretchedness. This story, of two men who have every reason to hate each other, finally grants us a tiny nugget of hope.