“…but death comes for us all.”
Each new film by Scott Cooper seems to be more divisive than the last. Crazy Heart was a light tale about a wounded bird learning to fly again. Every film afterward has been a little more… complex. Out of the Furnace was a stoic thriller depicting a brotherly bond that ends with violence. Cooper’s next film, Black Mass, was simultaneously a biopic of Whitey Bulger and a take on the perverse nature of Boston’s nativism. Neither aspect took, unfortunately. The director’s latest, Hostiles, is a return to the slow-burn of Out of the Furnace, and in no small coincidence because Christian Bale is returning. Viewer enjoyment, like mileage, will vary. Critics will be sure to find fault with this Western, but they would be missing a multitude of positive attributes. Namely, the lead performance of Christian Bale, the stunning cinematography provided by Masanobu Takayanagi, and Max Richter’s lovely score.
The vistas of Colorado and New Mexico as captured by Takayanagi are truly something to behold. Such sights make one long for a time when Westerns would regularly populate Cinerama theatres. Don’t mistake sights for an easy viewing, though, because Hostiles is a film that matches the beauty of the American West with the brutality of man. Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) has two options as his last act as Captain in the U.S. Army: escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his home in Montana as his last, dying wish, or face a dishonorable discharge. Capt. Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk have a shared history: both men squared off against one another in numerous battles, and each adversary has his own share of scalps. Captain Blocker is being given a chance at redemption in returning Yellow Hawk to his home, but he would rather risk his pension than accept the mission. For better or worse.
Initial scenes with Christian Bale would suggest that his performance is a throwback to John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Films with an unapologetic racist at the center face an uphill battle today, even if it’s immediately apparent that depiction does not equal endorsement. Still, John Ford’s masterpiece sees through the bigoted talk of his lead when he announces he will kill his niece rather than rescue her. To Ethan, Debbie is merely the “leavings of a Comanche buck.” The Searchers relied on comedic relief featuring Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and the Swedish immigrants to soften the racism, but Cooper allows no relief in Hostiles. A lack of humor is a complaint about Cooper’s recent brand of “macho filmmaking”, but labels like that are more deserving for pig-headed movies made by Michael Bay. Somber stories like this are not interchangeable with that of an action oeuvre that refuses to reward patience.
The Western frontier was a hypothetical line yet, in many genre films, it seems that the line was drawn between loyalty to one’s cause and the sense of decency toward fellow human beings. Blocker has hermetically sealed himself inside of his hatred over the years; justifying bigotry by dredging up the many men who died in combat alongside him. One highlight of the film involves Blocker share an intimate conversation with his brother-in-arms, Corp. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), wounded in the line of duty. An injury such as Woodson’s makes it unlikely that he will ever see Blocker again. For inhabitants of a violent world, Hostiles plunges inside the pain present in the souls of both men, revealing deeper depths. For men as reserved as Blocker and Woodson, such displays are a rarity. The full emotional gambit runs, from fear to righteousness, to anger, to anguish, to despair, and finally, hope. It’s a movie that tells you not to hold the past too tightly, acting as a treatise on guilt and grief. While taking place in the late 1880s, Hostiles serves as an opportunity to explore PTSD dealing in the here and now.
Hostiles could be a contemporary of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: but too often it assumes it should follow genre trappings when it absolutely shouldn’t. With the exception of–perhaps–an ill-advised opening act involving Rosamund Pike’s character, Cooper ratchets up the tension slowly, only punctuating moments with gunplay when audiences can no longer bear it. Adding in shoe-horned plot points rebukes the grace in small gestures that most of the film excels at. It’s accessibility withstanding, Hostiles is a fascinating study of the human condition.
One wishes the same care could’ve been taken to the trauma of Rosalie Quaid (Pike) and Chief Yellow Hawk themselves. Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi are figured to be featured largely, yet the highly-regarded thespians serve as support Bale’s Capt. Blocker. The ensemble–even if largely underused–elevates the proceedings beyond the developmental troubles of the script. Scott Cooper hasn’t made his masterpiece yet, but it lays in wait on the horizon.