Film review: “Hostiles” (2017)

“Hostiles” (2017)



Running Time: 133 minutes

Written & Directed by: Scott Cooper

Featuring:  Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Timothée Chalamet

Rosalie Quaid: “Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake.”

I absolutely love Westerns; the genre keeps giving audiences some incredible films with a massive amount of sub genres that always produce some real classics every few years. Writer/Director Scott Cooper has made his, I eagerly hope his first, Western, “Hostiles” (2017) with a few of his recent collaborators, producing a work of pure cinema that all great Westerns can do which is to transcend its own genre to make comments on modern life. This film also  clearly illustrates what it means to be a man as well as how people treat each other in extreme situations; most of all it is about doing what is right even when this is against your own best interests. What is interesting is that Coopers previous films, the Oscar winning “Crazy Heart” (2011), the underrated “Out of the Furnace” (2013) and what should have been an Oscar contender the mixed “Black Mass” (2015) all have aspects that clearly feature in the Western genre. My feeling after viewing “Hostiles” was that this is the film that Cooper has been warming up to, based on a book that he has adapted, he is in total control of his environs, with a hand picked cast that help lend some authenticity to the film. Over the past ten to fifteen years “Hostiles” stands out as a very special film indeed.

Like all great films “Hostiles” invites not only a deeper reading of its story as well as its narrative but calls for more than one viewing, as just on the surface it has some fantastic actors giving great performances. Part of the narrative that was refreshing was not to have flashbacks or explanations about characters pasts but to just experience their turmoil or damage as in real life there are very little backstories given by people. Cooper has managed to, like many Westerns before, create a simple story that is loaded with meaning about very different people thrown together to become allies if not more. The director has shown in previous films that he is not afraid to create real pauses and space to give environments and characters time to make impacts on the plot as well their compatriots. What this means is that at times while it may seem slow, it is reflecting what life could possibly have been like, it brings to my mind a film much like “Unforgiven” (1992) in particular with its central protagonist as a three dimensional character.

“Hostiles” is set in 1892, where Captain Joseph Blocker is called to the office of Colonel Abraham Biggs, who informs him of his final orders before retirement, direct from the President: escort dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk, along with his family, back to their tribal lands in Montana. Under threat of a court-martial if he refused to follow the orders, he reluctantly accepts, despite his history with the chief, who was responsible for the death of several of his friends and comrades.

“Hostiles” would not work without the actors Cooper has cast as they all, top to bottom one hundred percent believably authentic, with an Oscar winner as well as Oscar nominees and some of the best character actors working in film today. The other aspect is that all of these actors are great film actors, they are all acutely aware of the placement of the camera as well as how to play to that camera, so that they recognize when subtlety is required which is definitely something needed in a film like this one. At the top of the call sheet is an actor who is as adept at playing leads as he his playing real characters, Christian Bale, an Oscar winner who here has to play a man full of hatred, loathing but loyal to his men, also as someone who with his arc has to recognize that hatred is a self consuming emotion that takes effort and strength but festers effecting not only oneself but all those around you. While not the most well-known or flashiest actor in this film, Rory Cochrane is almost the result of Bale’s character. Cochrane plays Master Sgt. Thomas Metz a self confessed murderer of men, woman and children all Indians, a fact that has taken its toll on the soldier who attempts to, throughout his journey convince Bale’s Blocker of this, but seemingly fails – he does have the final say though.

Through their journey the group encounter Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid who has had her own horrendous encounter with a war party as we as eventually some white fur traders, she comes to know her ‘enemy’ as well as someone who is one of the bravest people in this film, Pike plays her to perfection, reminding me of similarities to her character in the Oscar nominated “Gone Girl” (2014). There are multiple other actors featured such as Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet and Peter Mullan who all know their jobs which they all perform well in support of the main characters, all give believable performances of soldiers at very different stages and levels of their respective careers, each also have their own opinions of their mission as well their commanding officer which offers an element of realism to the film.

One of the highlights of the film is the casting as well as the treatment of the Native Americans with the standouts being Wes Studi, Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher who all speak in their native tongue as well as being the beating heart of “Hostiles”.  As the real co-lead of the film, Studi who has been acting for decades maintains his stoicism despite his sickness as well as the fact he is a prisoner who is the face of the hate that all the soldiers feel. He also acts as a victim of the encroaching push into the frontier as well as cost that has been paid by all of his people when the white men arrived to take their natural resources. In fact the encroachment that his people face as well as the cancer he is dying of could be considered to be a metaphor for the issues that are facing the environment we now find ourselves in. The fact that the Earth is facing serious environmental issues after the mass consumerism as well as rampant industrialism that has occurred ever since the Western expansionism is seen in Chief Yellow Hawk’s sickness. It is always a treat to see Adam Beach onscreen especially playing his ethnicity which is not something seen all the time, not that this is a negative but Beach is such a gifted gentle actor it is great to see him in a film that is special. Finally there is Q’orianka Kilcher who famously appeared in “The New World” (2005) as Pocahontas here is has grown into an expressive actress that adds to the heft of Studi’s character, we feel his pain as she feels hers as a daughter who is trapped metaphorically as well as literally.

“Hostiles” looks as you would expect lush with a variety of locations, weather and time, shot by Masanobu Takayanagi who has worked on almost all of Coopers films as well as a few that have specialized in the outdoors, “The Grey” (2012) comes to mind here has to be proud of his efforts. There is the feeling of both grand scale as well as intimacy, the world in which this film is set is a varied one and so we have night vistas of camps against fires as well as rain, shifting to wide open plains in Montana that reflect the open road Chief Yellow Hawk is ultimately going to take, even in the closing moments with the choices that Blocker has to make all in clear slow motion with the oncoming technological revolution that will soon overcome all of society.

“Hostiles” is at once a grand looking and feeling film but with many intimate moments that illustrate how lives can be reduced to singular events or emotions but it is ultimately up to individuals to decide whether they will be shaped by events or they will make something of their lot, through very simple emotional decisions. It seems clear that this film is saying that moving forward not getting caught in a game of blame is the healthy way to go.

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