TUCSON, Ariz. - So few Westerns are made these days that it's somewhat shocking to see a well-pedigreed, meditative take on the genre come trotting along and tip its hat.
"Hostiles" is the best film of its kind in years, despite some flaws that hold it back from matching the likes of "Unforgiven," "Open Range" or the "True Grit" remake. It's a robust, full-bodied experience that is as exhausting as it is envigorating.
Director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart," "Black Mass") nails the bleak 1892 setting. Filming in and around Sante Fe, N.M., Cooper sketches out a sprawling, unforgiving Old West charred with sun-scorched blood. His vision is also enlightened with the benefit of retrospect, a revisionist take that bites back at mid-20th century westerns that portrayed the white man as the victim and hero and Indians as the savage enemy.
Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie, a woman who survives the scalping and murder of her husband and children at the hands of the Comanche. Christian Bale is Blocker, a military captain who grudgingly accepts orders to march ailing Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to a Montana reservation. The assignment is treacherous and miserable, and Blocker rounds up a squad to take on the thankless task, which he muses could be his last.
Happening upon Rosalie during their travels, Blocker bends to Rosalie's solemn, staunch will to proceed with him. Nervous about being around those she sees as responsible for destroying her life. She has much to learn about the "hostiles" she believes torment the land to which she has felt entitled, but is hardened enough by experience to know what she doesn't know.
Blocker and Yellow Hawk aren't quite as malleable, but manage to form a grudging respect as they fend off attacks from environmental and human enemies on their shared trek.
The pieces are in place for a trasncendent experience, but methodical plotting and a lack of economical storytelling often cause the film's momentum to stall out. There is a slow, lazy rhythm to the tale that comes close to wearing away its welcome before a jolt of action or jarring twist gets the momentum flowing again.
"Hostiles" is well worth seeing for its thorough ownership of its setting and powerful performances, which you will only manage to absorb if you can avoid nodding off.