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Hostiles: A beautiful yet brutally hyperealistic cowboy drama which challenges the Western genre.
January 8, 2018
Christian Bale plays Blocker, a legendary soldier who is clearly suffering from severe PTSD after years of slaughtering natives in the American Indian Wars. He has done terrible things and has the demeanour, the thousand mile stare and the huge moustache to prove it. Much to his chagrin, just before he is due to retire, Blocker is tasked with taking his men and escorting one of his most despised enemies, the cancer ridden Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal lands so he can die on home soil. Over their many years at war, Yellow Hawk has killed and scalped many of Blockers brothers in arms in front of him so he is filled with rage at thought of protecting the “savage” chief to ensure he gets his peaceful death. The journey becomes one of survival as the group are attacked repeatedly by marauding rival tribes and groups of vicious white fur trappers. This brings the two groups and more importantly the two men together and a mutual respect and understanding develops.
Christian Bale and Rosamond Pike star in the latest in a line of bleak modern westerns (see The Revenant and Bone Tomahawk) by the prestige director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart, Black Mass). Arguably Cooper’s best film, after a truly gruesome opening that sets us up for what’s to come, it starts slow. Once the journey gets going we get a series of brutal action sequences mixed in with quiet moments of reflection and connection between characters. The landscape is captured by Masanobu Takayanagi in all its raw beauty with wide shots but the smaller scenes are captured brilliantly in close ups and shots that hold on their characters when they are talking or a particularly harrowing scene when a character digs a grave with their hands. Cooper uses this film to ask questions in this post-Trump, post-Truth world but unfortunately this is undercut in the way the native American characters are given so little to do and the way that Bale’s Blocker, who as an instrument of the state took part in various massacres does little but acknowledge it. Cooper’s ethical ambitions are there but the film is unable to get much further.
Bale’s powerful performance is understated as he goes from full outrage, nearly killing Yellow Hawk himself at the start of their journey to grudging and then mutual respect, even slowly coming to terms with his own violent genocidal past and being possibly able to see past it to a future for the first time. Bale has rarely been better. It is also good to see Wes Studi again as the wise and proud Yellow Hawk. Studi is peppered throughout cinema particular in the 90s from playing noble native Americans in such classics as Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans to playing Pacino’s back up in Heat. Unfortunately despite ample opportunity in the films long running time, he is not given very much to do. This is a staple of these modern westerns. The Native characters are more like cyphers and aren’t given much in terms of personality or character journey themselves, besides facilitate the white man’s redemption. We don’t get much in terms of screen time between Yellow Hawk and Blocker either which seems a missed opportunity.
Despite Bale’s strong performance, the film is stolen by a career best performance from Rosamond Pike as the broken Rosalee Quaid. From the films horrific opening, where her entire family is murdered by arch evil Comanche’s to her being found by the ragtag escort in a state of shock and her subsequent journey of mourning and then finding the strength to go on, this is a raw performance that Pike gives her all to and certainly deserves every plaudit come awards season. She is stunning in her vulnerability and then her strength. A truly magnificent and raw performance by an actress truly in her prime, that definitely needs to be seen. Where others might hold back, Pike pushes on but most importantly never loses control, never goes into melodrama and later on when Rosalee picks up a gun and starts riding a horse, it really does feel authentic.
There is ample support throughout the film including a disturbed performance by Ben Foster who plays a sort of counterpoint to Bale’s Blocker who shows up in the midway point. Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane also give solid performances. It was also fun to see the British actors Paul Anderson and Peter Mullan pop up alongside various character actors throughout the film. Cooper uses his solid cast in a Game of Thrones style where you never know who will die next and sometimes familiar faces don’t last as long as you’d assume considering their pedigree, giving the narrative an unexpected flavour.
Just as the myth-making of the early Westerns by directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, eventually gave way to the more violent and colourful westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. The revisionist Westerns by directors like Easstwood,again, and Kevin Costner have now given way to a new batch of absolutely brutal and hyper-realistic offerings which mix the brutality and moral ambiguity of Spaghetti Westerns but also show the beauty of the Montana landscape such as the breath-taking red rocks frequently seen in old John Ford cowboy movies. Cooper tries to do a bit of everything in his film and largely succeeds. An ambitious film that is destined for the awards season. Be prepared for a bleak, tough journey which has an abundance of excellent action sequences, elegantly shot beautiful scenery and expertly handled drama.
Hostiles is out now.
Words by Hamza Mohsin @lebadass