Hostiles opens on the New Mexico frontier, in the sturdy home of a settler who has built a fortified cabin to protect his family in the event of an Indian attack.
When that attack occurs, however, he runs out on foot to confront a band of horse-mounted Comanche raiders. He sends his wife and children out of the house on a similarly futile maneuver.
This is the first time that director Scott Cooper shows us violent spectacle at the expense of credibility, but it won't be the last in Hostiles, a relentlessly grim Western that reunites Cooper with Christian Bale, his star in Out of the Furnace.
Bale plays hateful cavalry officer Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) assigned to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), his most despised Native American adversary, 1,000 miles north to the sickly and dying chief's tribal home in Montana.
The movie is set in 1892, when it likely would have been possible to travel most of the way to Montana by train. Yet Blocker sets out through the wilderness with a handful of soldiers and as many bound and unarmed Indians — Yellow Hawk's family — although Comanche raiders are known to be operating in the area. Blocker, in fact, finds the lone survivor (Rosamund Pike) of a Comanche raid weeping over her dead family, mad with grief and trying to dig graves with her bare fingernails.
Soon Blocker's contingent (Timothée Chalamet, Jesse Plemons) is also attacked, and the encounter reduces his force to a wounded few. He straggles into a settlement and fort where, incredibly, the commanding officer sends him on his way again — without additional manpower, and with the further handicap of a psychopathic Army prisoner (Ben Foster).
What is Cooper after here? He seems to want us to gasp at the naturalistic horror of it all, drawn from history and accompanied with the sober denunciation of actual frontier massacres (Blocker is a veteran of Wounded Knee), but the parade of grotesque violence (murders, rapes, suicides) suggests something more surreal, less literal.
Foster's character, for instance, is less a person than a transparent narrative device. He's been arrested and sentenced for committing the same kind of atrocities on his own time that Blocker committed while following orders.
One reason Foster's character is transparent is that he keeps blabbing to Blocker that there is no real difference between them — they hate Indians, they kill Indians, yet one is a decorated officer and one a prisoner.
He's just one of several characters in the movie driven mad by violence. Still, it's violence that Cooper uses to cauterize all of these moral wounds. Blocker and Yellow Hawk bond over their shared sense of purpose — killing Comanches. Concluding scenes in Montana involve yet another exchange of fire, and survivors emerge somehow cleansed, wearing the spiffy civilian clothes of encroaching civilization.
And finally climbing on board a train.