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‘Hostiles’: Wounds of the West heal slowly in brutal frontier tale

In "Hostiles," Capt. Blocker (Christian Bale) is haunted by what he’s seen in warfare. | ENTERTAINMENT STUDIOS

If “The Walking Dead” hadn’t already been taken by the zombie-apocalypse comic book series and TV show, it would be the perfect title for this most violent and brutal of Westerns.

For even though the retiring U.S. Cavalry captain, the Cheyenne chief and the frontier widow who are thrust together in writer-director Scott Cooper’s unforgiving tale continue to breathe the air and make their way through the days and nights, they’ve known so much pain and heartache and bloodshed they’re hardly among the living any more.

Every morning when the sun hits their eyes and their pasts are there waiting for them, they’re the Waking Dead.

When it comes to laser-focused technique so intense it’s almost unnerving, Christian Bale might be second only to Daniel Day-Lewis among modern actors — and Bale is at the top of his game (and perfectly cast) as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, a legendary soldier who never once flinched at doing what needed to be done in decades of deadly confrontations with Native Americans.

The year is 1892. The heavily goateed, ever unsmiling, exhausted Blocker is playing out the string at a post in Fort Berringer, New Mexico, counting the days until his retirement. (When a smug journalist shows up to interview Blocker and accuses him of taking countless scalps, Blocker shrugs and says, “I was just doing my job.” He’s haunted, but he’s not about to let this outsider in on that secret.)

Blocker is given one last assignment, and to his mind it’s the most offensive task he’s ever been given.

For the last seven years, the Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his extended family, including children and grandchildren, have been incarcerated at Ft. Berringer.

Chief Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer, and under orders from President Benjamin Harrison himself, the chief and his family are to be escorted from New Mexico to his ancestral land in Montana so he can be buried with dignity. And Blocker, who despises the chief and his people, who has seen many a friend die at their hands, must lead the small team of soldiers charged with escorting and protecting them.

Along the way, the party encounters Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid, who is covered in blood and in a state of shock after a band of Apaches murdered her husband and her children and burned down their ranch. (When they find Rosalie, she’s clinging to her dead children and she warns the soldiers to keep quiet lest they wake up the babies. It is a chilling moment but also deeply touching, as these rough and battle-tested men handle the situation with gentle kindness.)

The party has no choice but take Rosalie with them, as leaving her behind would be sentencing her to a sure death. They also wind up transporting a disgraced former soldier, Sgt. Willis (Ben Foster), who has been sentenced to hang for war crimes.

So we’ve got Captain Blocker and a small band of soldiers (strong performances by Jesse Plemons, Peter Mullan and Timothee Chalamet from “Call Me by Your Name”); Chief Yellow Hawk and his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach) and various family members, including children; the widow Rosalie, and the shackled Sgt. Willis, who fought alongside Blocker for years and keeps talking about he hasn’t done anything worse than Blocker did. Trying to make it all the way to Montana, with murderous Apaches and hostile fur traders lurking around every corner.

It’s the stuff of John Ford Westerns, of the best Clint Eastwood films of the genre. Although I don’t think even the most graphically violent of Eastwood’s movies were as blood-soaked as this story.

Not that “Hostiles” is all ambush and throat slitting and arrows piercing hearts and gunfights. One of the reasons Blocker was given the assignment in the first place is his fluency in Northern Cheyenne, enabling him to communicate with Yellow Hawk and eventually come to a certain understanding with the chief. (These subtitled scenes add an air of spirituality and authenticity, and make some of the subsequent violence all that more heart-shattering.)

Wes Studi is magnificent as Chief Yellow Hawk, who, like Capt. Blocker, readily admits to countless acts of unspeakable violence, and confidently justifies every action taken as necessary to protect his people and preserve his legacy. Q’orianka Kilcher and Tanaya Beatty deliver fine work as Cheyenne women that find a bond with Rosalie

Bale is as good as he’s ever been, especially in the film’s final 30 minutes or so, when Capt. Blocker surprises us and no doubt surprises himself with certain actions he takes.

“Hostile” is not for the faint of heart, but it winds up being about having a heart in a world that seems almost without hope.

★★★1⁄2

Entertainment Studios presents a film written and directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R (for strong language and violence). Running time: 133 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and Century 12in Evanston.