I will admit after watching this film for a second time my original thoughts, which I will admit were somewhat bolstered by my great affection for the western genre to begin with, of that the film had flaws was perhaps an understatement. This film is a tapestry of wasted potential within its story of essentially the horrors of the west to which the film garners not a single pointed insight from therein. The film suffers from an excessive amount of characters while really under serving the majority of them in their attempt to some how include of all of them to tell this story. This is particularly true within the characters of the Natives who have barely a handful of lines though the film acts as though their story is of equal importance to that of the U.S. cavalry yet it never grants them more than the most surface of development. It's a film that seems burdened by its importance yet never offers the needed substance to earn this approach. This is commonly true for director Scott Cooper's career in general who perhaps someone should tell that even Silence and Schindler's List with their bleak subject matter had a few jokes in there, and that's just the truth. Of course a film can be great without humor however Cooper takes the approach that if a film has the appearance of this apparent gravitas that it will in turn realize itself within the narrative, yet that is never the case with his work particularly not in this film.
One credit I will grant for Scott Cooper is he seems to usually have a way with his actors whether or not they are working with compelling material. This is the second time he is working with Christian Bale who previously elevated Cooper's Out of the Furnace with his devoted work. Bale here is as devoted in his portrayal of Captain Joseph Blocker, obviously someone who has been part of the "Indian Wars" for a long time when the film opens. Bale portrays the first scene establishing Blocker as this hardened sort as he pays no mind to his men as they brutalize a few natives they have captured. When he is tasked with the mission at the center of the film though Bale establishes his tone for the rest of the film which is to be more intense than he's ever been in his career, which is saying quite a lot for an actor known for his intensity. Bale is utterly volcanic in this performance as he portrays such pent up anger as he initially tries to turn down the mission. The severity of the man's hatred Bale portrays as deep within the man's heart, but he carefully shows that this is not a hollow prejudice. Bale reveals this by inflicting his greater intensity when speaking of the chief's past that involved killing his friends. Bale uses his intensity to reveal a man on the brink of an emotional breakdown when he speaks of these past events, a breakdown that we see a scene later when he is isolated in the wilderness which Bale uses well to establish Blocker's hate as stemming from this war.
When the journey begins Bale is great in having established this hardened state of the man this is both in terms of his no-nonsense attitude in general. Bale delivers essentially the commanding presence a man who needs to be in these circumstances and properly overshadows every scene as being this focal point within them. He brings that right power personality essentially within the burden of the man's past as well as his hatred. When Blocker originally has the chief chained up Bale delivers this with a shade of malice, but more overtly as this strict method of protecting himself during the journey. They quickly come across a massacred homestead with only Rosamund Pike's Rosalie as a survivor. Bale again captures the scene well within this portrayal of a man who is not at all taken aback by what he sees rather reacts with the utmost professionalism of a man who has seen this many times before. He does suggest the right inherent decency deep within the man just again in the way Bale portrays just faintest bit of warmth, though still within as a soldier's courtesy sort of fashion, as he attempts to take care of the shattered woman. It's a good scene as Bale uses it to establish a different potential side of the man, but once we get Bale having fully established who Blocker is this is where the film begins to run into trouble in terms of the development of its themes in a truly meaningful way.
The group gets attacked by the Apache enough, killing some of Blocker's men, that leads him to unchain the chief and his family so they can work together to finish their trek. That's what happens and then film proceeds to offer many paths yet doesn't properly commit to any of them. In that it never gives them the amount of development needed with Cooper's direction at fault but particularly in his writing of it. The material is problematic leaving the other performers and Bale to try to make something of this film. I would describe what we see as the film continues in Bale's work as the raw material of a masterful performance, sadly never fully realized into one due to the material. It is not on lacking of his part as throughout the film we are essentially granted vignettes of different paths for his character that could been more fully explored. We get one scene between Bale and his wounded buffalo soldier Corporal Woodson (Jonathan Majors). This scene hasn't really been built towards as it is this exploration for their apparent long friendship based on the two serving together for some time. The film did not earn this moment through developing this story, but having said that Bale tries his absolute best to make up for it within the context of the Blocker he has established. Bale projects this abundance of hidden concern and gratitude for the man within the cold hide of the man to make it an effective moment all within his own performance nonetheless.
The film does this again and again. We also see this through his relationship with two men more mentally unhinged than he is from the war. The first being condemned murderer Sergeant Wills played well by Ben Foster yet the role might as well have been defined by the tired old line "We're not so different you and I". The intensity delivered by Bale and Foster in a single scene is notable enough, and Bale is once again terrific in trying to make this additional subplot work. This time delivery a blunt coldness to the man he refuses to admit he's at alike, though effectively realizing this as taking some degree of suppression from Blocker. In these moments he realizes a more directed hate towards this man possibly because he reminds him of himself, possibly because he's what he could be, these are both interesting ideas alluded to by Bale but not really all that well explored by the film. The second relationship is with his loyal Sergeant Metz well played by Rory Cochrane as a man who is basically in the same state as Bale's Blocker yet without the control to prevent his life of killing and death from destroying his mind. Bale is great in the scenes between them in portraying just the bit of camaraderie the man has to offer as he attempts to comfort his friend, and does suggest their long history of pain together. Bale is terrific by offering this different look at Metz than at Wills, as in his eyes there is that concern rather than hatred, concern seemingly both for Metz and himself. When Metz takes his own life, Bale is outstanding in his portrayal of this man just barely holding onto his own sanity, through his expression of these pained rugged breaths that suggest Blocker controlling himself as fully letting in the sorrow would swallow his mind whole if he embraced it.
Those relationships are interesting yet still don't seem fully explored to the heights that they could be. They at least get somewhere there though, but perhaps are diluted a bit by the film's choice to pile on its suffering as though it will make a weightier film with each death it depicts. Again there is at least something there, there is far less in Blocker's ongoing relationship with the damaged Rosalie. The development of the relationship as written is extremely underwhelming. Once again though I can't discredit Bale's work. In his scenes with Pike Bale is exceptional in offering a bit more of than initial warmth that suggests a potential at a decent life. Bale allows just this most minor regression of that intense control that defines his character. When he explains that God has been blind to the west, Bale's fantastic in the moment in letting a bit more tender emotion even within cynicism by granting this sense of a man having some type of optimistic belief if somewhere very hidden within him. Although the writing continues to not develop this relationship into anything truly notable, Bale cannot be faulted in his portrayal of Blocker slowly coming out to her in each moment with her, even when the film barely grants him those moments. The most underwritten element is sadly the central one involving Blocker's relationship with Yellow Hawk. The only thing as written the film gives is again that the chief suggests they need to fight together so they do. This somehow is suppose to build to the point that in the end he so respects the man that he would be willing to fight and die for his right to burial. The film doesn't attempt to show this slow progression of a growing respect at all. It is largely assumed since Studi has so few lines in the film. Bale I will say can't quite make this work to be at all powerful or potent. I will say he does at least try to establish some sense of this transition by gradually easing the direct intensity towards Studi, and shifting to the people he genuinely hates like Foster, or the ranchers they fight at the end of the film. I don't think this is a flaw in Bale's performance because he does try to provide what he can, and given that there are genuinely powerful moments within his own performance inside this lacking material is remarkable. If I were only assessing the success of the character, I would say Blocker isn't quite there. I'm looking at the performance though and on that end Bale is incredible in how much conviction he brings to every scene, and what he manages to deliver within his role despite how many flaws there are within the material behind it.