THE harsh realities of life in America’s 19th-century Old West are explored in this bleak and resolutely brutal film from writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace).

The story centres on army Captain Joseph J Blocker (Christian Bale), pictured right, a tough man with a history of perpetuating and witnessing horrific violence against and at the hands of the Native Americans, or “hostiles” as they refer to them.

One day Blocker is set the task of escorting Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family through dangerous territory he knows all too well, a job he is utterly reluctant to accept because of his history with the man who was once known for viciousness but is now old and dying.

However, with his retirement nearing and his pension being threatened, he begrudgingly takes on the job and sets out with a loyal group of soldiers which includes world-weary Sgt Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) and inexperienced French Pvt Philippe DeJardin (Call Me By Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet). Along the way he meets and takes under his protection Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman with a deeply tragic past of her own.

In many ways it harkens back to Westerns of old; the hallmarks of the genre are all in there, from the weighted campfire discussions to men travailing across vast expanses, here beautifully filmed by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey and Cooper’s own mob drama Black Mass). But it also does so with a compelling, lived-in modern grittiness. In that way, despite its journeying plot, it has more in common with No Country for Old Men and The Proposition than The Searchers or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

As a piece of cinema you really feel the dirt and grime under its fingernails, not least the uncompromising manner in which Cooper portrays the unavoidable, horrific violence at play across this American frontier; an opening scene depicting a family being slaughtered at their home is particularly tough to watch, setting the scene for the unyielding tone of the rest of the narrative.

But it also hits hard because of the plain-spoken, uncomfortably immediate way it examines its themes of blind hatred, a pertinent reaching for racial understanding and the potential (or lack thereof) for redemption amongst people who have committed horrific acts in the name of loyalty, nationalism or a sense of duty.

Who exactly are the hostiles of the title? The film never lets itself off the hook from exploring this – “It could just as easily be you in these chains,” says fellow soldier Charles Will (Ben Foster), who is now a prisoner after butchering a Native American family. “I was just doing my job,” Blocker defiantly replies.

Bale turns in a terrific performance, conveying the genre’s trademark strong, silent type gruffness of man with the weight of a dying new frontier on his shoulders and anger running through his veins. He’s the anchor of an austere film that may not break any especially new ground but tells its story powerfully and with an impressive dedication to looking emotionally and morally inward as much as it does outward to an at once rugged and beautiful landscape of a time long buried in the ground.