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Can you take a movie genre so seriously that it breaks? “Hostiles” is a western with a solid pedigree: Adapted from a short story by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (“Missing”), it’s written and directed by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) and stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”), the formidable Cherokee actor Wes Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans”), and a terrific gallery of supporting players. It’s lovingly shot in widescreen (by Masanobu Takayanagi) and scored (by the gifted post-minimalist Max Richter).
And it is so swollen with self-conscious import, so weighted down with tragic frontier ponderousness, that it just sits there, refusing to clear the runway despite the best efforts of everyone involved except Cooper, who seems convinced he’s telling us something but fails to convince us what that might be.
It takes the movie 25 minutes just to get going. Before then, we’ve witnessed a prairie massacre that leaves Rosalie Quaid (Pike) the shattered sole survivor, spent time with US Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) as he mournfully contemplates retirement, watched Blocker go up against his commanding officer (Stephan Lang) and a smug Eastern newspaperman (Bill Camp) after being ordered on one last tour of duty: to escort the dying Cheyenne warrior chief Yellow Hawk (Studi) from prison in New Mexico to his Montana homeland.
Blocker hates Native Americans, as is made clear from his closed-off face — as distant as a figure in a daguerreotype — and his grim reminiscences of surviving and committing atrocities during the Indian Wars. “Hostiles” is the story of how the soldier and the warrior find common ground over the course of their journey and together mourn the passing of a people; it’s pitched at a pace that wants to be stately but becomes funereal.
By far the best aspects of the movie are the performances by Bale, Studi, Pike — her character is rescued early in the trek and becomes an emotional lifeline to Blocker and he to her — and the many familiar faces peppering the proceedings. The Cavalry escort includes Jesse Plemons (“The Post,” “Black Mirror”) as a West Point newbie, Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”) as a young French recruit, Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused”) under heavy facial hair as Blocker’s guilt-consumed fellow soldier, and the fearsome Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”) as a cunning, crazy racist in the mix. Among the Cheyenne party can be glimpsed Q’orianka Kilcher, the one-time Pocahontas of “The New World.”
They’re all left to twist in a film that imagines it has the epic historical melancholy of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” or James Grey’s “The Immigrant” but instead becomes defined by lugubriousness: long lap dissolves of the characters staring sadly into space or pronouncing on the death of the American dream. (“Do you believe in the Lord, Joe?” Blocker is asked. “Yes, I do,” he intones, “but He’s been blind to what’s been going on out here for a long time.” The whole movie sounds like that.)
Despite the film’s length and aspirations, its anthropological correctness and historically accurate gore, Bale’s transformation from stone killer to empathetic ally is unconvincing. So are the feelings that grow between the captain and the settler woman, even if the payoff is a memorable final image. There have been recent westerns with serious ambitions and an eye on the chaos of the American adventure that invest a viewer more in story and less in their directors’ aims; “Slow West” (2015) and Tommy Lee Jones’s “The Homesman” (2014) among them. By contrast, “Hostiles” feels thought out rather than lived in. A western should know how to breathe, and this one never does.
Written and directed by Scott Cooper, based on a story by Donald E. Stewart. Starring Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike. At Boston Common, suburbs. 133 minutes. R (strong violence and language).
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