2017 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Late on a brisk Saturday evening – following a taxing four-film day – press, patrons, and otherwise huddled in line to check out Scott Cooper‘s (“Crazy Heart”) latest film, “Hostiles” – a yet undistributed Western starring Academy Award Winner Christian Bale (“The Fighter”). While I had been excited to see the film – Westerns have long been a favorite genre of mine, from Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” to John Ford’s “The Searchers” to Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” – it was the Telluride Tribute – an annual event that is the highlight of the festival – that preceded the film that I was most eager for. This year’s honoree was none other than Bale himself, with the uber-legendary director Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) set to moderate.

We escaped the sudden rain that escalated into an assailing hailstorm, entering the Palm Theater and retreating to our seats to enjoy a thirty-one-minute, ten-film sampling of Bale’s finest work. The tribute spanned the actor’s 30-year career, from “Empire of the Sun” through “The Big Short,” wrapping with a clip from the Bale/Herzog collaboration, “Rescue Dawn.” The two then converged onstage to have an open and intimate conversation about their careers, which, for this movie lover, was quite a treat to behold. It might just have been my favorite Telluride moment over the last three years. It was followed with Cooper joining Bale on stage, and introducing co-stars Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl“) and Wes Studi (“Dances With Wolves”) to the platform before unveiling his latest flick.

The western genre is by far, the most underappreciated, most under-utilized brand of filmmaking, so Cooper’s entry into the festival was a most welcomed addition. Set against the bleak backdrop of the 1892 Old West Frontier, Cooper follows up his warmly-reviewed mob flick, “Black Mass” – another Telluride premiere – with “Hostiles.” The film stars Academy Award Winner Christian Bale (“The Fighter”) as Captain Joseph Blocker, an Army captain known for his brutal performance during the Indian Wars, who is now assigned the detail of taking the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Studi) – an adversary he has a contentious history with – to the sacred tribal burial grounds in the Valley of the Bears, Montana.

Hostiles” opens with the barbarous slaughter of Rosalie Quaid’s (Pike) entire family at the hands of the Comanche, leaving one to assume who the titular savages refer to. As Blocker’s party comes across her scorched homestead, his hatred for the natives turns to hell-bent fury, as the fire in his belly is easily discernible. Half-crazed, Quaid joins their party north, and we see a gentler side of Blocker as he tries to nurture her back from her devastating grief. The group encounters obstacles of all kind along their way, and soon Blocker and Yellow Hawk find themselves relying on one another to make it through their journey alive.

Hostiles” is gritty and gruesome, with deep themes of desperate antipathy and somber absolution, both of oneself and with those who have done us wrong. It doesn’t take long for one to realize that the title refers far beyond the realms of the Comanche alone.  The viewer is deeply affected by the story, the performances, and the motif.  It’d be hard to argue that “Hostiles” is Cooper’s best work to date. Not stopping there, it is simply one of the best films you’ll see this year. With “Hostiles,” Cooper has established himself as not only a master craftsman but a dynamic storyteller as well.

“Hostiles” is still looking for distribution, and will play next at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12.

GRADE: (★½)

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