REVIEW / WESTERN DRAMA
The story: Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is a soldier broken by years of battle with natives, in which both sides have inflicted great cruelties. His commander orders him to escort a dying prisoner of war, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his ancestral lands so he can be buried there. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) is a frontierswoman who is the sole survivor of a raid by Comanche tribesmen. The captain and Rosalie's paths will cross on the road.
Of late, there have been superhero movies that look like westerns (Logan, 2017) and westerns that look like horror pictures (Bone Tomahawk, 2015).
There have also been pictures that are westerns in almost all respects, but take place in the present day (Hell Or High Water, 2016; and Wind River, 2017)
This movie is the real deal: A full-blooded western, complete with Old West setting, horses trekking across sweeping landscapes and Native Americans out for blood.
This being a modern interpretation, what it leaves out is the old genre assumptions, such as the idea that natives are savages or that women settlers serve no story purpose other than as victims whose lives and sexual purity must be protected or avenged.
Writer-director Scott Cooper's films are portraits of lonely male protagonists whose values come from an older, more romantic time. Crazy Heart (2009, starring Jeff Bridges) has a boozy country singer; Out Of The Furnace (2013, also starring Bale) pits a steel worker against the "redneck mafia"; Black Mass (2015, with Johnny Depp) is a biopic of gangster James "Whitey" Bulger.
Captain Blocker (Bale) is a typical Cooper hero: Brooding, damaged, seeking salvation through one final, violent act of redemption. Today, he would be considered a war criminal, but in his time, he is just a soldier whose reputation for cold-bloodedness against natives has made him a figure to be feared and respected.
There is a certain inevitability in a Cooper story about a man like Blocker, seething with racist hate against Indians, being given the job of protecting a dying Cheyenne chief on a journey across hostile territory.
Yes, it goes where you think it will go, but Cooper throws in plenty of colour in the secondary characters. Pike's character of frontierswoman Rosalie is an interesting touch, as is Studi's cancer-ridden chief, Yellow Hawk. Rosalie emerges as a fully rounded person, but Yellow Hawk and his family are not given the same attention.
Still, for all its updates to the genre, this is still Blocker's story and, as Cooper seems to say, the story of the American nation, founded on the eradication of a pre-existing people. The soldier, like the country he represents, must reckon with the shadow on its soul, or be forever haunted.