Christian Bale western 'Hostiles' is the slowest movie in the west
Posted December 28, 2017 3:08 p.m. EST
Byline: By Mick LaSalle
Somebody has been watching lots of Westerns: The sky that begins a few feet off the ground. The red rock. The courage. The silence. The bad food. The people wearing the same clothes forever. And nobody has any luggage.
Somebody has been loving Westerns, too, but loving them perhaps a little too much. Excessive reverence has a way of lengthening pauses between lines of dialogue, and sometimes between words. Writer-director Scott Cooper invests every last moment in ``Hostiles,'' even minor encounters between minor characters, with solemnity. This is not garden-variety seriousness we're talking about, but a deep gravity and earnestness that denies even the possibility of humor's existence.
This makes ``Hostiles'' something of a slog, but a movie-literate slog containing some impressive scenes. Thus, we get Rosamund Pike as a nice woman, living in the middle of nowhere, who is home-schooling her daughters one day, when her husband runs in and says that the Comanches are about to attack them. Them, personally. There's no village, just one little house. What follows is a slaughter, the kind of bloodshed that John Ford could never show back in the day. It's shocking and takes you straight into the terror of living in that particular place and time.
Meanwhile, over at the nearby government fort, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a veteran Indian fighter, is assigned to take a small team of soldiers and escort an ailing Indian chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his homeland in Montana. Blocker doesn't like Indians all that much, and Yellow Hawk isn't a big fan of the white settlers. But they're all stuck together, and guess who they run into on their journey? Rosalie (Pike), a traumatized woman who has just witnessed the murder of her husband, two daughters and an infant baby.
That's the set-up of ``Hostiles,'' and the rest of the movie is about the struggle to make Montana, in the face of internal division and possible Comanche attack. Apparently being home on the range, in those days, amounted to long, long stretches of nothing happening, interspersed by brief spasms of violence and terror.
One could say Cooper takes his time, but that would be understating the situation. Better to say that Cooper makes Liv Ullmann look like Michael Bay. Have you ever seen a movie directed by Liv Ullmann? If it's subtitled, you can watch it on fast forward and not miss a single nuance. Cooper is even slower than that. Characters think before they talk. The think a long time. They think before they ask a cliched question -- such as, how did you feel the first time you killed somebody? -- and then they think forever before answering: Don't worry, you'll get used to it.
There's a thin line between depicting and inflicting misery, and ``Hostiles'' crosses the line with its dull characters, its almost-endless tedium and its nihilistic violence. The attempt seems to be to update the western genre, by respecting the traditions, while emphasizing, in a modern way, the hardships and the racial conflicts. But the audience shares those hardships, while experiencing none of the poetry or grandeur that other westerns often provide.
Indeed, there's a such overkill on the misery that when Rosamund Pike starts shrieking in grief, bewailing the slaughter of her two daughters and infant child, you may find a little devil land on your shoulder with a smirk on its face. There's only so much pawing at the earth that an actress can do before digging to the other side, where tragedy meets comedy.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.
1 star out of 4 stars Western. Starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. Directed by Scott Cooper. (R. 133 minutes.)