Scott Cooper hasn’t quite nailed it since his 2009 debut Crazy Heart, where Jeff Bridges won best actor at the Oscars. His last film Black Mass was a bit empty and had a plastic performance from Johnny Depp. This time he’s attempting a western, with Christian Bale as Captain Joseph J. Blocker in the middle of it. It’s 1892 and Blocker is coming to the end of a career of capturing and killing Native Americans – to colonize New Mexico. To get his pension he’s tasked with escorting former adversary Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his home. The Chief is dying and the US government see it as public relations opportunity to wash over the mistreatment of the natives. Along the way Blocker, his team and the chief’s family pick up Rosalie Quaid (Rosmund Pike) whose family is killed by a violent group of Apaches. She joins them, and their journey begins.
The prologue to this film settles you in for the rest of the run-time. It’s brutal, and unsettling. What follows is a film with a harsh nature that is told with captivating style. The character of Blocker is conflicted and sombre – it appears he’s seen everything, but when it starts to fall apart around him he keeps going. Bale plays him with real empathy, and there are moments when he bursts with emotion. Pike’s character is a tortured soul and she brings heart to the story with tough affliction. Wes Studi is measured as the Chief, giving a physical performance and he only opens up when it’s right to. His family are often in the background and this may be a flaw in the film, because the Native American characters are quietened by the well roundness of Blocker and Quaid. It’s a stellar supporting cast that surrounds them with Jonathan Majors and Ben Foster having key roles in the narrative.
It’s gorgeously shot on film. Director of Photography Masanobu Takayanagi captures beautiful open landscapes with impressive wide’s and the natural lighting makes the calmer scenes acutely intimate. The colour palette is warm and earthy, giving the film a distinctive western look. Cooper’s direction is slow, and he interjects several moments of serenity. He will have shots of open fields, mountains, characters alone by a fire or close ups of them – all to show times of thinking and cognitive pain. It’s these moments, paired with bouts of fast action that make the film an alluring experience. The themes are noble but not necessarily comprehensive. Cooper scratches at surface of race ideas, and issues. He himself relates them to contemporary times, though it never felt punchier enough for that. More than anything it’s a definite western about human savagery, rather than anything else it was trying to achieve. It’s a wonderful film that hangs on the edge of being something more.
Is it the worth the price of a cinema ticket?