While traditional westerns tried to tell you that death was swift, tidy and usually justified, the revisionist western genre goes to the opposite end of the scale, showing us an environment and a society in which it almost appears incredible that anyone survived at all. Hostiles falls safely in the latter category, with its brutal and relentless account about a disgruntled army captain (Christian Bale) whose final task before retirement is to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana.
Having already started in media res with a segment about a settler family and a Comanche war party, writer/director Scott Cooper has a fine setup from which to spin his tale. And thanks to his patient narrative style, well thought-out characters and the hauntingly beautiful images shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Hostiles sucks you in and transports you successfully back in time and place. Cooper is out to show us that western life was grim and the complex characters who found themselves in it had reasons for acting the way they did. There's cruelty and violence around every corner, and sometimes it's not so easy to decipher who had morals on their side. Strong, solid acting from almost all members of an all-star cast, but particularly from Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike in the male and female lead, respectively, keeps the film constantly engrossing, even when Cooper's script occasionally becomes too slow-moving or faltering in logic.