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Lorey Sebastian, Yellow Hawk Inc.
Christian Bale, center, in “Hostiles.”

"HOSTILES" — 3 stars — Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons; R (strong violence and language); in general release

There’s a lot of death in “Hostiles,” and it isn’t just people that are doing the dying. The tricky part is pulling the meaning from all of it.

Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” follows the journey of a U.S. war veteran leading a group from New Mexico to Montana near the turn of the 20th century. Along the way, Cooper uses the beautiful Western landscape and an assortment of period characters to paint a portrait of the end of an era.

The story is set in 1892, and Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is just shy of retirement after a lengthy and bloody career that has seen extensive conflict with Native Americans. Stationed in Fort Berringer, New Mexico, Blocker is given one final assignment: Escort a dying Cheyenne war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back home to the Valley of the Bears in Montana. Up until recently, the chief and his family have been in federal custody, but now that he’s dying of cancer, President Benjamin Harrison has ordered that the chief be returned to his homeland to die in peace.

This is anything but an easy assignment for Blocker, who became well acquainted with Yellow Hawk on the battlefield. Over the years, both Blocker and Yellow Hawk developed reputations for their violent brutality, and the notion of personally transporting his old adversary to freedom is almost unthinkable.

After his pension is threatened, though, Blocker agrees to the assignment, and accompanied by a small contingent, he sets out with Yellow Hawk and his family on the long journey north. On the way, they pick up the widowed survivor of a brutal Comanche attack named Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), and in addition to dealing with that rogue band, the party also has issues with a trio of fur trappers and an old associate of Blocker’s they take into custody in Colorado (Ben Foster).

With each subsequent encounter, Blocker is forced to reconcile his relationship with Yellow Hawk, who is insistent that the old enemies join forces in order to survive the journey. We also get the perspectives of other soldiers, such as Blocker’s loyal friend Thomas (Rory Cochrane) and an untested rookie out of West Point named Kidder (Jesse Plemons).

On one level, you can take “Hostiles” as a ponderous series of intermittent violent episodes, set against a breathtaking Western backdrop (the violence, plus some scattered profanity, earn the film’s R rating). But while you consider the history, ethics and relationships at play, it’s interesting to note that although “Hostiles” takes place almost exclusively at military forts and in the wilderness — which creates a lonely sense of Old West isolation — the story is actually taking place at the end of the era, not far from where communities such as Salt Lake City are growing up out of the desert. Even if we can’t quite see the transition, we can feel the end of the era just beyond the horizon.

It’s a fitting and almost poetic context for a character study like Blocker, a man who is wrestling with his own ride off into the sunset. The captain is a good match for the kind of quiet, burning fortitude Bale has brought to other roles. It would be easy for a movie such as “Hostiles” to be heavy-handed, and admittedly, it is tough to watch — especially when we are present for the execution of Rosalie’s family at the beginning of the film — but thankfully, Cooper affords the audience enough room to think about the story without forcing the outcome.

“Hostiles” is rated R for strong violence and language; running time: 134 minutes.