Hostiles
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi
Rated R for strong violence and language
2 hrs. 14 mins.

I’m from a generation that grew up on Westerns — the myths, the heroes, the shootouts between whites and the savage Indians who attacked them.

Not until I hit adulthood did I begin to realize that behind these films was a much bigger picture, one that involved a struggle over American expansionism and a conflicting way of life.

In the 1970s, American filmmakers began to explore this bigger picture, especially with films like Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson. A half-century later, director Scott Cooper returns to these themes in his latest film, Hostiles.

In 1892, the so-called American Indian Wars are nearing an end, with the “natives” in retreat but not yet fully vanquished. Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a man with a heroic, if not brutal, reputation for killing the enemy, returns to Fort Berringer, New Mexico, with a group of captured Apaches. Upon arrival, he receives a request to see his commanding officer, Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang).

Biggs gives Blocker a new assignment: Escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (who is dying from cancer) and his family back to their home territory in Montana. The order comes directly from U.S. President Benjamin Harrison.

Blocker, who has fought Yellow Hawk in past wars, protests over his assignment. He hates Yellow Hawk and mourns the loss of some of his soldier friends to the chief’s brutality. Biggs leaves Blocker with a choice: Either do the job or lose his pension. Blocker reluctantly follows orders and leads a military escort north with Yellow Hawk and family in tow.

Meanwhile, as scattered bands of Apaches run raids on local settlers, Blocker comes across a family compound where a father and his two daughters have been murdered. His wife, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), has survived by hiding with her mortally wounded baby in the mountainous brush nearby.

After Blocker and crew tend to her needs and bury the family, she joins their escort until she can be returned to a safe haven.

Hostiles is filmed panoramically with gorgeous views of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. The landscape is vital to the film’s progress and seems to invite a broad perspective about the story itself. Cooper chooses a quiet directorial approach, with dialogue handed out sparsely and closeups that reveal the haunted cracks of the human face.

The issue that infuses this movie is one of responsibility as a warrior, and any required reconciliation that may result. In a warrior’s life, who has the right to kill? And where is the line between killing and murder? It’s a conundrum that is discussed frequently on both sides and remains open to debate. Men and women reveal their secrets. The past hangs over them like smoke.

Blocker, dealing with Yellow Hawk face to face, grows more gaunt as the film progresses. Blocker’s closest friend, Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), becomes downright ghostly against the campfires and the rain.

Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is effectively stoic as he faces down his disease and the consequences of his own life as a warrior. His is a different philosophy. Death comes to everyone. It is a natural part of life. How one dies makes little difference in a world where death is inevitable.

Hostiles is a Western with a peculiarly modern feel to it. Blocker is a man devoured by his duty and torn between his need for peace and his tendency to use butchery as a military tactic. One can certainly debate the ending, whether Rosalie can serve as Blocker’s redemption, but the impact of the story itself is overwhelming.

Once one has killed the enemy, is there ever a chance to be reconciled with that enemy? In today’s violent conflicts between countries and cultures, militaries and presidents, one is left to wonder if that query can even be asked.