Somebody has been watching lots of Westerns: The sky that begins a few feet off the ground. The red rock. The courage. The silence. The bad food. The people wearing the same clothes forever. And nobody has any luggage.
Somebody has been loving Westerns, too, but loving them perhaps a little too much. Excessive reverence has a way of lengthening pauses between lines of dialogue, and sometimes between words. Writer-director Scott Cooper invests every last moment in “Hostiles,” even minor encounters between minor characters, with solemnity. This is not garden-variety seriousness we’re talking about, but a deep gravity and earnestness that denies even the possibility of humor’s existence.
This makes “Hostiles” something of a slog, but a movie-literate slog containing some impressive scenes. Thus, we get Rosamund Pike as a nice woman, living in the middle of nowhere home-schooling her children, when one day her husband runs in and says the Comanches are about to attack them. Them, personally. There’s no village. What follows is a slaughter, the kind of bloodshed that John Ford could never show back in the day. It’s shocking and takes you straight into the terror of living in that particular place and time.
Meanwhile, over at the nearby government fort, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a veteran Indian fighter, is assigned to take a small team of soldiers and escort an ailing Indian chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his homeland in Montana. Blocker doesn’t like Indians all that much, and Yellow Hawk isn’t a big fan of the white settlers. But they’re all stuck together, and guess who they run into on their journey? Rosalie (Pike), a traumatized woman who has just witnessed the murder of her family.
That’s the set-up of “Hostiles,” and the rest of the movie is about the struggle to make it to Montana, in the face of internal division and possible Comanche attack. It amounts to long, long stretches of nothing happening, interspersed by brief spasms of violence and terror.
One could say Cooper takes his time, but that would be understating the situation. Characters think before they talk. They think a long time. They think before they ask a cliched question — such as, how did you feel the first time you killed somebody? — and then they think forever before answering: Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
There’s a thin line between depicting and inflicting misery, and “Hostiles” crosses the line with its dull characters, its almost-endless tedium and its nihilistic violence. The attempt seems to be to update the western genre, by respecting the traditions, while emphasizing, in a modern way, the hardships and the racial conflicts. But the audience shares those hardships, while experiencing none of the poetry or grandeur other westerns often provide.
Indeed, there’s such overkill on the misery that when Pike starts shrieking in grief, bewailing the slaughter of her children, you may find a little devil on your shoulder with a smirk on its face. There’s only so much pawing at the earth that an actress can do before digging to the other side, where tragedy meets comedy.