Like a haunting Shakespearean tragedy, this shot-on-location Western is set in 1892 and involves one U.S. Calvary officer Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), an icy-hearted, stone-cold career soldier who has butchered countless Indians in the name of frontier justice. Set to retire, he’s given a final order against his personal wishes: escort the infamous Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their Montana native land so he can die in peace. It looks like Yellow Hawk, whose dying of cancer, has killed his share of the white man, including many of Capt. Blocker’s friends, so you know there’s great hatred between these two guys.
They begin their ‘road trip from Hell’ with young Private “Frenchie” DeJardin (Timothee Charmalet), West Point Lt. Kidder (Matt Damon look-a-like Jesse Plemons), and Joe’s old friends, Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Buffalo Soldier Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors). Needless to say, their trip starts off shaky as Joe just assume kill Yellow Hawk as make the long journey. However, their plans change as they pick up an unexpected stranger on the way. Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie Quaid, an emotionally scarred frontier women whose entire family was wiped out by some renegade Comanche’s. With nowhere to go and her fate uncertain, she tags along with the caravan under Joe’s care.
Along the treacherous route they encounter life-threatening obstacles, attacks, personal vendettas, and pick-up prisoner Sgt. Charles Wills (Ben Foster) at another fort. But this ain’t no National Lampoon’s Vacation, that’s for sure. Tensions flair, people are killed, and everyone is put to the test as they continue their dread sojourn through the unforgiving weather conditions, picturesque mountains, forests, and finally to their destination. But make no mistake about it, no one comes out of this trip unscathed or unchanged.
Director/screenwriter Scott Cooper, who gave us the scintillating Black Mass with Johnny Depp in 2015, switches gears with this unforgettable and depressing look at the authentic lost frontier, complete with authentic shoot-outs, horrible treatment of the Native Americans, and gut-wrenching loss of life. No John Wayne Western ever looked like this! At its core you have Christian Bale giving one of the best performances ever. Raw, unflinching, visceral, and heart-breaking, Bale nails this role as his character goes through an emotional upheaval in his life, along with Pike who is just as powerful as the mother who has lost everything.
Even the supporting cast are scary good: Stephen Lang as Colonel Abraham Biggs and Cochrane as Joe’s BFF, who’s exceptional and even gives Bale a run for his money. Studi, who for the most part doesn’t talk much, but still delivers a solid and dignified performance without ever uttering a word. But then again, he doesn’t need to with a script loaded with excellent dialogue (with Bale speaking Cheyenne) and well directed scenes. Sure, it’s well over 2hrs, but you don’t feel the length with Cooper’s pacing and his attention to detail. Check out the exquisite cinematography by Masanobu Takatanagi (The Grey); it’s just gorgeous, shot on location in Colorado and New Mexico.
It’s 1886 and the great Apache Chief Geronimo (Studi) has finally surrendered after years of U.S. attacks on his people and, in fact, ALL Native Americans. The Apache Indians have reluctantly agreed to settle on a U.S. government approved reservation, but not all the Apaches are willing to adapt to the lifestyle of corn farmers. These are a proud race, a warrior race, and Geronimo in particular, is restless.
Pushed over the edge by broken promises and unnecessary actions by the government, Geronimo and 30 other warriors form an attack team which humiliates the government by evading capture, while reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. The central plot involves a young idealistic U.S. Calvary Lieutenant named Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) who’s charged with capturing the elusive Apache leader, along with crusty old scout leader Al Sieber (Roger Duvall) and young graduate, Britton Davis (Matt Damon).
Torn by a grudging respect for Geronimo and his people, Gatewood also has to think about his duty to his country. Enter Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who not only has respect for Geronimo, but is saddled with overseeing the forced settlement of the Apaches on reservations. Geronimo surrenders to Crook, but later escapes, taking half of the reservation with him. Gatewood, Sieber, Davis, and a group of soldiers, all set out to capture Geronimo, while Crook later resigns.
The next day Gatewood, Sieber, Davis and the Apache Chato (Steve Reevis) come across some slaughtered Indians. They stop at a bar, but there are bounty hunters there and they threaten to kill Chato for money, which results in a shootout. Sieber is shot and mortally wounded. Gatewood, Davis, and Chato carry on to capture Geronimo, which they finally do. Geronimo makes peace with Gatewood and surrenders along with the other Apaches to General Miles (Kevin Tighe). Gatewood is transferred to a remote garrison in Northern Wyoming, Davis resigns from the army, and Chato is shipped off to Florida with the rest of the renegades to open up a casino. J.K. I made that last part up.
Shot on location in Utah and Arizona, this beautifully shot movie (Lloyd Ahern did the cinematography) came and went without much fanfare due to the ill-timing of its release. Pitted against mega-movie The Last Action Hero, it didn’t stand a chance, losing money at the box office quickly. A real shame too, as the screenplay by John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn) was excellent, being more of a character study, rather than your A-typical ‘bang-bang, shoot-’em up’ cowboy flick.
Jason Patric plays a brooding, almost angst-riddled soldier against Duval’s cynical old coot wonderfully and throwing in Hackman is just the icing on the cake. Studi has the best role here, plying the iconic Geronimo with not only respect and dignity, but even a little sarcastic humor. And look for a very young Matt Damon in one of his early film roles here, too.