For fans of the Western genre you will struggle to find a better film this year, despite the fact that it’s January. Writer/Director Scott Cooper has produced a brutal, stoic example of the genre with stunning imagery and a haunting score.
The film sets the tone early as we see Rosalie Quaid’s (Rosamund Pike) entire family, including a baby gunned down by Comanche Indians. These opening scenes are hard to watch and are only the beginning in terms of the loss witnessed during its duration. We then meet Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale). A man we learn is no stranger to killing and one who certainly has no love lost with the Native American. He is tasked with transporting Chief Yellow Hawk (Wed Studi) to his home, a political act of freeing a dying man. Blocker is unhappy, but is near retirement and grudgingly obeys orders. On the dangerous journey his group find Quaid and he looks to protect her on the journey.
Cooper’s film seems to paint all men involved as monsters, both Natives and White. All have committed atrocities and all are capable of being human. It makes for intriguing watching as we know both Blocker and Yellow Hawk have killed men and yet they start to develop an appreciation of each other. Bale turns in another blistering performance. A man trying to keep his emotion in check but prone to explosions of anguish. Whilst Pike is equally as good with repressed grief and pain that occasionally spills out.
Elsewhere in the travelling group there are a number of soldiers struggling with what they have seen or what they seem to know is coming to them. Jesse Plemons soldier struggles to come to terms with killing a man for the first time whilst another soldier who is being transported as a prisoner played by Ben Foster argues that him and Blocker are no different.
The final moments suggest redemption might be possible even if, as one character says during the film we know death comes to us all.