Telluride: Christian Bale Returns to Oscar Contention in 'Hostiles'

Scott Cooper's second collaboration with the 2011 Oscar winner is a Western that had its world premiere at the film festival in the Rockies.
Lorey Sebastian, Le Grisbi Productions/Waypoint Entertainment

Few directors working today have demonstrated as much interest in or ability at making films about complicated men with dark pasts as Scott Cooper. The 47-year-old now has followed 2009's Crazy Heart, 2013's Out of the Furnace and 2015's Black Mass with Hostiles, which had its world premiere here at the Telluride Film Festival on Saturday. It has not yet been picked up for distribution, so rollout plans are not yet in place. But if it's released before the end of the year, then its leading man Christian Bale is almost sure of a place in this year's best actor race.

I caught the Western's second screening, Sunday morning, at the Chuck Jones Cinema, following a festival tribute to Bale (who also starred in Out of the Furnace) that was moderated by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. Bale, who has put on a significant amount of weight in order to play Dick Cheney in an upcoming Adam McKay film about the former vice president, sat a few rows in front of me while a montage of highlights from his 30-year career unspooled prior to a Q&A, and he appeared to wipe tears from his eyes at several points.

In Hostiles, the British actor delivers a gut punch of a performance as a 19th-century captain in the U.S. Army who is rapidly approaching retirement, but first is ordered to guarantee the safe transport of a Cheyenne, played by Wes Studi, who had been incarcerated for murder but recently was diagnosed with terminal cancer and granted a pardon so that he can die in his native land. Bale's character takes on the assignment against his wishes, since he hates Native Americans, having lost family and friends to them. Along the way, he and his support team encounter a white woman (Rosamund Pike) whose husband and three children were just murdered by Native Americans, and bring her along with them.

In many ways, Hostiles seems to have been inspired by the films of John Ford, from 1939's Stagecoach (a group of oddballs undertake a long journey together) to, in particular, 1956's The Searchers (in which a deeply racist man is forced to undertake a long journey with a Native American who shares his objective, and which also begins with a massacre very similar to the one with which Hostiles begins). Perhaps for this reason, some elements of the emotionally draining 127-minute film, which was made for a $55 million, can feel a bit cliche. And Pike's character — specifically, the seeds of the relationship that develops between her character and Bale's — feels a bit underdeveloped.

But Bale, a true chameleon who seemingly can do anything — including, in this film, speaking chunks of Cheyenne — makes this film a must-see. If it is released by the end of the year (a year in which the best actor field is looking awfully slim), it would be hard to imagine Bale not becoming a serious contender to win the best actor prize, which would go nicely with the best supporting actor Oscar he won for The Fighter six years ago.

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