Christian Bale Goes on Transformative Journey in Dark Western ‘Hostiles’

The American West in 1892, a place where human life was relatively cheap and living conditions could be brutal, is the setting for the drama “Hostiles.” Christian Bale leads an ensemble of of stellar actors that includes Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Q’orianka Kilcher and Timothée Chalamet, although it’s not advisable to get too attached to any characters in this world where death can occur in the blink of an eye. This is made clear in the very first scene, when pioneer woman Rosalie Quad (Pike) loses her whole family – a husband, two young daughters and a baby son – in a matter of minutes in an attack made by Comanches. It’s harrowing to watch as Rosalie is forced to make some split second decisions and figure out how to survive in her new reality.

Next, we meet the reluctant hero, Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Bale), a man coming to the end of a long military career that entailed seeing lots of action, including plenty of violence involving Native Americans. This is what makes his final command, an assignment he only undertakes at the threat of losing his pension, extremely difficult. He is to escort a sickly old Cheyenne prisoner, Chief Yellowhawk (Studi), and his family from Arizona to Montana so he can die on his own lands. Despite speaking their language, Blocker at the beginning has nothing but contempt for the Cheyenne, or any Native Americans, and would sooner murder Yellowhawk before doing him any favors. However, after being ambushed by a group of Comanches, Blocker and Yellowhawk come to an understanding that they have a better chance of surviving this arduous journey if they stand together and unite.

Accompanying Blocker is his oldest friend, Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Cochrane), and one can only imagine the you-know-what the pair has seen together. In one memorable scene that further illustrates the grim reality of this kind of life, the former Confederate soldier describes to a younger soldier (Plemons) how he made his first kill at age 14 and has gone on to end the lives of countless other men, women and children of “all colors.”

Cochrane spoke with Entertainment Voice at the AFI Film Festival premiere of “Hostiles.” “I spent about four months growing out a beard,” he said when asked how he prepared for his role. “We got to Mexico, and the elevation was really high, so we had to acclimate to that.” He went on to describe long days shooting under the hot sun, made all the more unbearable by heavy costumes. “It was a little bit brutal, but after a while, we acclimated.”

Early on, Blocker and the others come across Rosalie, who is still in a state of shock. They take her on and help her bury her family. While up until this point the mixed group has been working together in order to survive, the arrival of this grieving woman leads to some actual thawing out between the whites and the Native Americans.

Yellowhawk’s daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Kilcher) is the first to show compassion, as she gives a grieving Rosalie a clean dress to wear, a small gesture that begins a friendship between the widow and Elk Woman’s family that saves at least one life by the end. Kilcher, who first broke through as a young teen playing Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” has the extra challenge here of playing a character who spoke Cheyenne, a language that was previously unfamiliar to the Alaskan native.

“I have a musical background, so for me, when I learn a new language, the first focus is on melody,” Kilcher revealed at the AFI premiere. “It was a bit difficult, Cheyenne is a very difficult language, but we had some really wonderful cultural advisors on set, and they we so great and wonderful. For me, as an actress, portraying the Cheyenne community, I just really wanted to make sure it was done in a dignified and honorable way.”

“Hostiles” was edited by Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross. Cross told Entertainment Voice that the main draw for working on this film was the opportunity to reunite with director Scott Cooper, as he had previously worked on Cooper’s film “Crazy Heart.”

“The biggest challenge was how to make a western and not have it feel like a western movie that you’ve seen before,” explained Cross. “There’s a lot of cliches, a lot of tropes that you can fall into, and that was a big thing that Scott warned me about. He reminded me that he wanted it to be a psychological story first…. Christian Bale’s character, Rosamund Pike’s character, Wes Studi’s character – He wanted those characters to feel like real characters you could see in an old photograph. As he put it, he didn’t want it to feel like your daddy’s western.”

Cooper most recently edited “La La Land,” and he explained what it was like going from that musical to “Hostiles,” a film strikingly different in tone.  “It’s going from something that has a lightness in touch to something that is very dark and grim. It was challenging… But at the end of the day, Scott wrote this story that has an element of redemption in it. It takes these characters and it starts them off in one place, but they go on this journey together and they wind up somewhere else. Where they wind up is place where I want to be, you know? It’s a positive place, it’s a constructive place. Scott and I always talked about, what’s the point of making a story that is so dark, such a dark portrait of America? Well, the point is to reach another place and suggest some constructive ideas and some positive idea, so that kind of got us through the movie.”

While “Hostiles” doesn’t exactly have an upbeat ending, those who do survive emerge transformed from the experience. The best thing Cooper does here is shows what happens when compassion and understanding takes a backseat to hatred and greed.

Hostiles” opens in Los Ageles and New York Dec. 22, select cities Jan. 5, nationwide Jan. 19.