“HOSTILES”, a bleak and bloody western, opens with a horrific act of violence. In New Mexico in 1892, a homesteader is cutting wood while his wife gives their two daughters a grammar lesson and cradles their newborn baby. Four Comanches ride towards the house, guns and bows drawn, to steal their horses. The wife is able to run to safety, but not before seeing her husband scalped and her children, including her baby, shot to death.

When François Truffaut, a French film director, stated that “there is no such thing as an anti-war film”, he was implying that the tragic realities of conflict are sanitised by the screen. His insight applies equally to the Old West. The trappings of the genre—gunfights, horse riding and damsels in distress—end up indulging the fantasies of young men even when a more nuanced comment is intended. Yet “Hostiles”, Scott Cooper’s new film, has succeeded in robbing the genre of its frivolities. Mr Cooper has form: he previously erased any sense of giddiness from the crime genre in “Out of the Furnace” (2013) and “Black Mass” (2015). In “Hostiles” there are guns to be shot and women defended, but the sense of play is gone. It is a savage film that reckons with the moral cost of “taming” a continent, and asks us to consider its modern-day implications. 

From that opening salvo, the story jumps to another scene of violence. U.S. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is overseeing the capture of a young Apache man, whose wife and child look on in tears. Blocker is stationed in New Mexico, where he carries out the orders of the U.S. Army to imprison Native Americans, without due process, so that expansion can continue unfettered. Others note that he takes pleasure in his work, but Mr Cooper suggests that he has simply blocked the moral questions from his mind. “It ought not to be this way,” a colleague tells him. Blocker responds: “Is there a better way?” His back is already turned, and the question is rhetorical.

A better way is imposed upon him when he is tasked with returning Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a dying Cheyenne Chief, to his home in Montana. It is a publicity move directed by the president himself, presumably to ease tensions, and Blocker has no choice but to comply. Early on his journey, he and his men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the grieving wife from the film’s first scene. Blocker helps her bury her family, and the unorthodox travelling party continues on through the plains and prairies, fighting off desperate Native Americans as well as their own inner demons. Shot in classic widescreen, Mr Cooper’s film captures both the grandeur of nature and the smallness of these few characters, emphasising their powerlessness over the natural world.

Despite its attempt to deglamourise the genre, there is nothing particularly new afoot in “Hostiles”, which makes only marginal thematic gains over previous westerns that examined the American-Native American dynamic such as “The Searchers” (1956) and “Fort Apache” (1948). Like those works, “Hostiles” is most concerned with moral relativism, showing how Blocker’s viciousness in killing is no different from the “savagery” he detests in Native Americans. Too often, Mr Cooper tells us this rather that showing it. In one scene, an officer’s wife rants about the inhumane treatment of Native Americans, arguing that they were “dispossessed by us”. In another, a journalist compares Blocker’s exploits to those of Chief Yellow Hawk, spelling out comparisons that the viewer should be able to make on their own.

“Hostiles” is more effective in subtly applying this dynamic to a modern context. The early scene in which Blocker resists, and eventually accepts, the new assignment given to him by his gruff superior could have been out of “Lethal Weapon” or some other “rogue cop” movie of our era. The way he and his soldiers speak—with frequent use of obscenities punctuating short, declarative sentences—recalls a modern war film more than a classic western. These small formal touches do more to accentuate Mr Cooper’s message—that the dehumanisation of an enemy is not a relic of an ancient past—than all of his speeches put together. 

Blocker’s crew of soldiers represent a full spectrum of reactions to the horrors of war. Metz (Rory Cochrane) has been diagnosed with “melancholia” from his years of trauma, and Mr Cochrane summons a distant, almost alien quality to play the troubled soldier. Jesse Plemons and Timothee Chamalet (who with “Call Me By Your Name” and “Lady Bird” has had quite a year) are the young new recruits, whose innocence is a liability for the team. 

It is Mr Bale’s performance, however, that elevates the sometimes pedantic material into something more human. Mr Bale is a complex actor; in films like “American Psycho” and “The Dark Knight”, his strength is brooding. Here his character is perfectly composed on the outside, with seething anger underneath and further down, deep reservoirs of love and compassion. After one of his crew is shot, Blocker visits him in the hospital and unleashes a torrent of vulnerability that follows him throughout the film. We know there is good in him, and we yearn to see it released.

Yet in the wild, barbaric setting, hope is fleeting, and none of the film’s tender moments can ever quite compensate for the horrific trauma of its opening scenes. Mr Cooper has no interest in the catharsis of commercial film-making, or returning the viewer to the safety of the status quo. Unlike some historical films, he does not permit us the comfort of believing the past is truly past. By portraying frontier life at its most brutal, he leaves the viewer pondering America’s murderous history and its continued demonisation of the “other”.