Friday, January 05, 2018

Review | Hostiles | 2017


Scott Cooper's Hostiles opens with one of the most stunning acts of brutality I've seen on screen in a long time. Its brutality stems not from its graphic nature (although there are quite a few disturbing images), but from the frankness with which it depicts its violence. A band of Comanches rides over a hill and slaughters a family of settlers with a startling matter-of-factness, mercilessly gunning down the children and scalping their father. The only survivor is the mother, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), who escapes with her dead infant by hiding in the nearby forest.

It is a familiar scene from so many westerns: renegade Native Americans attacking white families with cruel barbarism; cold, unfeeling, evil, the very face of uncivilized savagery. But Cooper isn't playing to 1950s stereotypes, because in the very next scene, he introduces us to Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), an Army captain known for his ruthless treatment of the indians, capturing a family of natives with similar inhumanity. The Comanche warriors from the film's opening aren't monsters, they're part of a cycle of violence created by unchecked and often callous western expansion.

Blocker's barbaric reputation preceeds him. Soldiers speak in hushed whispers of a time when he cut a man "from stem to stern" (and we get the distinct feeling they're all talking about separate episodes). Now, he is on the brink of retirement, but isn't quite ready to put the old ways behind him. Once a soldier, always a soldier. That's why he's selected for a special mission: to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to his home in the Montana territory after years in a federal prison. Blocker is furious, and refuses the assignment, until he is threatened with losing his pension unless he complies.

Reluctantly, he sets out with a small contingent of soldiers and his Native charges, whom he immediately treats like prisoners. Along the way they encounter Rosalie, who joins their group but is immediately fearful of Chief Yellow Hawk and his family. Her presence softens something in Blocker, and as they also fall under attack by the Comanche war party, he begins to realize that the only way to survive this last mission is to band together with his old enemies, and finally put the past to rest.

Hostiles is not necessarily a journey of redemption. By the time the film reaches its quietly powerful conclusion, we're not entirely sure that Blocker is "redeemed" in a classical sense. The sins of the past may be too great. The important part of this, and it is keenly realized in Bale's incredibly poignant, morally ambiguous performance, is that Blocker realizes and comes to understand that fact. It may be too late for him and for Yellow Hawk; all they have known is violence and war, a lifetime of killing and hate. But it is not too late for the next generation.


The biggest issue here, it turns out, is the script, which gives us one howler of a scene set during a monsoon around two thirds of the way through, featuring an awkwardly on-the-nose apology to Yellow Hawk for their unforgivable treatment at the hands of the white man, and a painfully obvious plot device that can be seen coming a mile away. The film's eventual mirroring of that vicious opening scene also falls a bit flat. Everything up to that point is so expertly crafted, the tension so carefully tightened, that its failure to fully stick the landing is disappointing. And yet the actors sell it all with such conviction, not to mention Cooper's otherwise solid directorial voice. Bale, for his part, has never been better, reminding us all why he is one of our finest living actors. He is backed up by an impressive supporting cast that includes such accomplished veterans as Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Q'orianka Kilcher, Timothée Chalamet (cementing his up and comer status after Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird), Peter Mullan, and Stephen Lang. It is thanks to them that the film is able to mostly pull off something so few films ever really have the courage to do; it transports us and fully immerses us into another world without compromise or false comfort.

Cooper riffs on John Ford's The Searchers in a minor key, filling Hostiles with sweeping vistas that recall the grand Monument Valley locations that graced so many classic westerns. On the other hand, there is something colder here, a societal rot at its core, an idea that an America built on such violence cannot ever fully heal. Yet all is not without hope. The film ends on a beautifully understated question mark, a kind of inversion of The Searchers' iconic final shot in which John Wayne, no longer welcome in this brave new world, stands silhouetted by a dark door frame. Perhaps this truly is no country for old men, perhaps the old ways of thinking must die. What civilized world would have a place for a man like Blocker anyway?

It may be an often unrelentingly bleak work, but in the end Hostiles posits instead that the only way forward is forgiveness, both of one's self and of others. It's a lovely idea, maybe naive but perhaps necessary. Carried away on the wings of Max Richter's plaintive and elegiac score, Bale rides off into the sunset, leaving behind a chilly, haunted resignation to the way things are, with a tentative and uncertain note of possibility. In a world of seemingly unending and relentless darkness, what could be more beautiful than that?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HOSTILES | Directed by Scott Cooper | Stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Q'orianka Kilcher, Jonathan Majors, Timothée Chalamet, Peter Mullan, Stephen Lang | Rated R for strong violence, and language | Now playing in select cities. Opens everywhere Jan. 19. 

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