Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike Saddle up for Western Brutality
DIRECTED BY SCOTT COOPER/2017
JIM TUDOR: Is it possible to have both considerable admiration for a film that tests ones patience, in more ways than one?
Since his promisingly warm directorial debut, Crazy Heart, writer/director Cooper has made a hard shift into the realm of the brutal. That he’s finally made a boba fide Western, Hostiles, should come as a surprise to no one other than every studio exec who told him no. (The amount of small-time production company logos at the head of the film is truly staggering, indicating an effort of cobbled-together resources). The popular themes of the venerable genre have resonated through all of Cooper’s previous films to the degree that if one were to scrape Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and Crazy Heart together into a warm cast iron pot and mix them, the predominant flavor would be “Western”.
The trouble is, as a fan of Westerns, I wouldn’t want any. The result of such a cooking experiment might be Hostiles, but only if the appealing flavor of Crazy Heart thoroughly cooked out. To lift that pot off the fire, one’s hand might just need to be as heavy as Cooper’s has become.
After sitting there for most of its grim two hours and thirteen minutes feeling alternately angry, exasperated, and assaulted, I must report that the film found its own footing just long enough to win me over for those moments.
When you’ve got a Western in 2017 called “Hostiles”, you can bet that you’re riding into some pretty condemning territory. No one is okay in Hostiles, and they know it. That in itself is no reason to deduct points from a film, but when Cooper hits a nail on the head, he makes sure to keep hitting it. Unlike his previous film, the utter misfire Black Mass, at least he hit the nail in the first place this time.
The opening moments are a rough gut-punch, then you spend the rest of the film feeling gut-punched. Then just imagine how Rosalie Quaid feels, played by Rosamund Pike, being the only member of her family to survive the frontier massacre in question. The poor woman is appropriately shell shocked for the duration, accompanying Christian Bale’s troubled lead.
Bale stars as U.S. Calvary Captain Joseph Blocker, an Indian hater serving in the waning days of the American frontier. His character could be read as Ethan Edwards thrust into a post-Deadwood Western sensibility, by way of Ford’s Calvary trilogy. Though in the second half, he quotes the most most famous line of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven: “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled.” Oy. This is when I physically had to throw my arms up. When it comes to influences, Cooper goes directly to top, all right. Though it would’ve been really good if he’d perhaps dig a little deeper into the canon. As it is, Hostiles cops John Ford in the first half, Clint Eastwood in the second, before, at long last, settling into its own thing in its final minutes.
Which leads me back to my deeply conflicted relationship with this movie. After sitting there for most of its grim two hours and thirteen minutes feeling alternately angry, exasperated, and assaulted, I must report that the film found its own footing just long enough to win me over for those moments. The message is on point, the performances are quite good, and the location photography is breathtakingly at times. Hence the torn feelings. But, I’m just one guy; other opinions are available. Particularly, this one, courtesy of ZekeFilm Featured Critic Erik Yates…
ERIK YATES: Acknowledging all of your points, I think that Hostiles is a strong film, and has something worthwhile to say, and one of the better films of 2017. Christian Bale, as Capt. Blocker, is a brutal man who is shown to have succumbed to this character of brutality against anyone that is an “Indian”, or “savage”, after seeing so much death in war at the hands of such warriors. He has begun to see the other side as his enemy and has no patience for the orders he has been given to escort the equally brutal Chief Yellow Hawk (the excellent Wes Studi), of the Cheyenne Tribe, back to his homeland so that he can die at peace in his native lands. Capt. Blocker thinks that Yellow Hawk’s time in jail was too lenient and is outraged that he is being asked to humble himself and treat this man, his enemy, with any kind of decency. This belief of how hostile every native American is, is especially driven home as Capt. Blocker’s small detachment, that is escorting the chief and his family home, come across the shell-shocked Rosalie Quaid (Pike) whose family has been brutally murdered.
The power of the film, however, is how, on the journey to deliver this enemy to his home, we begin to see the humanity behind Chief Yellow Hawk, that defies our assumptions, and preconceived stereotypes.
Like the other films directed by Cooper that you mentioned Jim, each of those films seem to be in no rush to get where they are going. Instead, Cooper throws you into a tinder box and lets you feel the heat rise, slowly, but surely. While Hostiles is set in the waning days of the frontier, as you said, I felt that it could serve as a modern political commentary for our time now. As a nation, we are as divided as the lines that Cooper has drawn between the Native Americans and members of the U.S. Calvary that share Capt. Blocker’s worldview.
We, likewise, tend to treat anyone who doesn’t see things our way, or share our particular take on things, as the enemy who deserves no mercy. This does not mean that Hostiles is seeking to make any modern day political commentary, but the raw emotions and basic divides then, certainly find new outlets in any modern day context. The reason period-based films still work for a modern audience is based on this premise that while times change, and things like technology changes, we are all still only humans who are made of the same stuff. Our motives, our emotions, our beliefs, and our own self-interest continue to be aspects to the human condition that we can all relate to, as our insecurities, fears, hopes, and dreams.
Cooper, by using the title “Hostiles”, makes it a sort of derogatory outlook that white American settlers have regarding the “savages” of this land (another derogatory term directed at Native Americans) and positions the audience in this same perspective which is shared by Capt. Blocker that these Native tribes are all “Hostiles”. After seeing the raid on Rosalie Quaid’s family, we are also meant to take no other position. We are expected to view “them” the same way.
The power of the film, however, is how, on the journey to deliver this enemy to his home, we begin to see the humanity behind Chief Yellow Hawk, that defies our assumptions, and preconceived stereotypes. Instead, we begin to open up to Yellow Hawk and see his humanity. We especially see how he developed a grace and wisdom that gives him a peace, allowing for him to be open to reconciling with an enemy like Capt. Blocker, despite having the same brutal reputation in battle. When we begin to see things from his perspective, instead of just Capt. Blocker’s, one does not know who the true “Hostiles” really are, “us” or “them”. Rosalie Quaid’s emotional journey is meant to be the moral center of this internal transformation that we can all look to as what is possible, while Bale and Studi represent the more extreme positions of either side.
Eventually, the lines that have been drawn between “us” and “them” no longer seemed to be as clear. We begin to see the folly of lumping individuals into broad categories like “savages” and “hostiles”, painting the other side with a broad brush. Bale’s character’s journey is a subtle, but powerful transformation that is only made possible by beginning to see his enemy as a worthy equal, a fellow human, who is deserving of respect. When you begin to see others from that perspective, it is then that we can begin to dialogue and find common ground. When this happens, it doesn’t always remove the brutality of the harsh world we live in, but it may lead to it being less Hostile.