Hostiles

Hostiles-revHostiles  (2017)    Entertainment Studios/Western    RT: 134 minutes    Rated R (strong violence and language)    Director: Scott Cooper    Screenplay: Scott Cooper    Music: Max Richter    Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi    Release date: January 26, 2018 (US, wide)    Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ben Foster, Paul Anderson, Ryan Bingham, Stephen Lang, Peter Mullan, Robyn Malcolm, Scott Wilson, Bill Camp, John Benjamin Hickey, Scott Shepherd.

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 When Franz Kafka said “First impressions are always unreliable”, he may as well have been talking about Hostiles, the latest film from writer-director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace). The opening scene in which a frontier family is attacked by a bloodthirsty Comanche tribe promises a good old-fashioned cowboys and Indians western like the ones they made in the 40s and 50s. This particular scene recalls John Ford’s The Searchers, a classic of the genre. Once the plot kicks in, it’s clear that Hostiles is more like a revisionist western from the 60s and 70s where the “heroes” and “villains” aren’t as different as they’d like to think and the line between right and wrong is heavily blurred. The themes Cooper explores (e.g. ethnic-based hostility and hatred, violence and vengeance) are as relevant today as they were in the late 19th century.

 hostiles posterCaptain Joseph Blocker (Bale, the Dark Knight trilogy) is given one final assignment before he retires from the US Cavalry for good. He’s to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Studi, Geronimo: An American Legend), and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana. Blocker doesn’t want to do it. His hatred for Native Americans runs deep; they killed many of his friends over the years. Threatened with a court-martial for refusing to obey orders, he reluctantly accepts the assignment. He selects a detail that includes ailing old friend Metz (Cochrane, Dazed and Confused), West Point graduate Kidder (Plemons, TV’s Friday Night Lights), black Buffalo Soldier Woodson (newcomer Majors) and young, inexperienced Private DeJardin (Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name).

 Their journey is barely started when they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Pike, Gone Girl), the sole survivor of the slaughter shown in the movie’s opening scene. Heavily traumatized by the deaths of her husband and three young children, she can’t even bear to be in the same camp as Yellow Hawk and his family which includes son Black Hawk (Beach, Windtalkers) and his wife Elk Woman (Kilcher, The New World). For his part, Blocker treats his charges horribly, humiliating them by keeping them in chains. That is, until he realizes that they must work together if they’re to survive their journey through dangerous territory. The realization comes shortly after the Comanche war party ambushes them.

 Hostiles is very good up until about the midway point when it starts to roam off the dusty trail with an additional assignment for Blocker and company. They’re ordered to take a soldier, Sgt. Willis (Foster, Hell or High Water), charged with murder to Montana to be tried and hanged. It’s at this juncture Hostiles loses focus. Up until this point, it’s concerned with the hostile relations between Native Americans and American soldiers. The shift of focus to the animosities between soldiers supposedly on the same side is somewhat jarring. As for the whole bit about the previous relationship between Blocker and Willis (they fought Indians together and share the same level of hatred), it turns out to be superfluous and digressive. Thankfully, Hostiles regains its footing by the end.

 As a fan of westerns, I’m always psyched when a new one comes out. I might be one of the few people who think 2016’s The Magnificent Seven is a great remake (as good as 2010’s True Grit redo). Hostiles is a mix of traditional shoot-em-up and arthouse western. It has a few good action scenes and it touches on heavy themes. It shows the dark side of humanity. As Blocker, Bale is amazing. Because his mouth is concealed by a droopy moustache, he must express his emotions with his eyes which he does most effectively. You can see the anger, rage and hatred. It’s too bad his internal journey is only partly realized. I’m talking about the part where he regains his humanity by giving the enemy theirs. Pike is also good as the traumatized wife and mother who just wants justice for her slain family. The scene of her cradling her dead infant is haunting. Sadly, most of the supporting characters lack depth. I’m especially disappointed that Cooper didn’t give Studi more to do. He’s a fine actor and a commanding presence. Surely, more could have been done with his character.

 The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is beautiful. He makes excellent use of natural locations in New Mexico and Arizona. The whole movie looks stunning. The score by Max Richter is also quite good. Hostiles looks and feels authentic throughout; it never feels artificial. Granted, it runs a bit long and there are a couple of slow moments but it’s never boring. I really like this movie even with its shortcomings. It’s a great choice for a guys’ night out at the movies. 

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