Scott Cooper is an actor-turned-writer/director who seems slightly under the radar to me. He made a splash with CRAZY HEART ten years ago, a movie that somehow seems overshadowed by Jeff Bridge’s Oscar-winning performance in it (and that I thought of a few times watching A STAR IS BORN). His followup, the gloomy crime drama OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), teamed him with Christian Bale (POCAHONTAS) for the first time, and I have to admit that I have not seen his poorly reviewed BLACK MASS (2015). But he didn’t write that one. I only watch the ones he directs and writes, obviously.

2017’s HOSTILES (based on a manuscript written by Donald E. Stewart [JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, DEATHSPORT, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, PATRIOT GAMES, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER] in the ’80s) reteamed him with Bale for what might be categorized as a Real Serious Western – the kind where the director is hesitant to call it a western (“I don’t think in terms of genre… If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann…I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour” he told Moviemaker) and you want to grab them and tell them “all right cool it buddy, just admit you made a really good western.” (See also THE REVENANT.)

But I guess I sort of get it. A completely traditional western is not very marketable in this day and age. Most people don’t really want the genre without a little bit of a new spin on it, and HOSTILES has one.

It also has many familiar elements that are enjoyable in modern westerns: a group of people journeying through dangerous territory, transporting prisoners, an uneasy alliance between colonists and natives, a woman who proves her salt, soldiers who have grown tired of war, a man of violence who starts to grow a conscience. I think there are two things that put those elements in a context just different enough to feel like a new take on the material, for those who require such a thing.

Number one, there’s Bale’s performance as Captain Joseph Blocker. Alot of guys, sometimes including Bale, dive head first into a period character and they get all their costuming and facial hair and an old timey accent and some mud and blood on their face and their instinct is to just go at the scenery like a fuckin pitbull. And that can be great, I got nothing against that. But in this case Bale is able to combine all the attention to detail with some nuance and naturalism. He gets that big ol’ mustache and he sticks his chin out and looks like one of those faces that you only see in old civil war photographs. And he mumbles. But he’s not going for yelling and vein popping and spitting. He’s quiet. He makes us watch him.

Blocker is immediately despicable, a guy famous for killing countless Indians in war. Hates them. Blisteringly recounts war crimes they committed as justification for his bloodlust. Also plays along when his buddy Metz (Rory Cochrane, PASSION PLAY) reminisces about brutalities that he committed against them. I think there’s a little bit of subtext going on for both of them, but on the surface this is a “those were the good old days” type of conversation about committing atrocities. So he’s never gonna be able to be transformed into an angel.

But he’s complicated. This doesn’t redeem or contradict his racist bloodlust, but it’s still unexpected just how sensitively he treats Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, DOOM) when he discovers her after her family was massacred by Comanches. He finds her in the charred remains of her cabin, tending to her dead children as if they’re alive. And it’s easy to imagine Clint, Bronson or many others dragging her away, even slapping and yelling at her to break the hysteria cowboy style. Instead he very gently and quietly plays along and lets her carry the baby and gets the other soldiers to keep their distance. He patiently allows her to transition back into reality, giving her the space and support she needs. When she does seem to have snapped out of it they all stand back and watch respectfully, wincing a little with sympathy as she insists on digging the graves herself.

That doesn’t mean he’s not a pig-headed asshole. Ordered by the president to free and transport the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, ROAD TO PALOMA) and his family to their homeland in Montana, Blocker insists on putting them in shackles, which he keeps locked even after they prove themselves allies through badassery (killing Comanche attackers using their chains and horses as weapons!). We know this will change, but it’s gradual, and he seems embarrassed to admit it. He discusses everything with Yellow Hawk in Cheyenne but when he’s finally convinced to unchain them he doesn’t tell the chief, he turns away and tells his lieutenant Kidder (Jesse Plemons, BATTLESHIP) to do it.

But there is a vulnerability there under that shell, and when it comes out is whenever he loses one of the soldiers he’s fought alongside for years. There’s more than one scene where he cries, and some of them do involve death. But the big one is when he’s gotten his wounded corporal Woodson (Jonathan Majors, WHITE BOY RICK) to the safety of Fort Winslow, and has to say goodbye to him. He tries to get away with leaving him a letter, but Woodson wakes up and talks to him, and they acknowledge that they likely will never see each other again. They talk about how neither of them would be alive without each other. They’ve been through the shit together and become great friends. I think for Blocker it’s a matter of losing the only people in his life who could ever understand the trauma and guilt of having done the things he’s done.

The number two thing – you may have forgotten, but five paragraphs ago I said I was listing the two main things I think make this a distinct western, and we are on the second one – is the movie’s depiction of a world where everything is solved with violence, and yet violence is never a clean solution. Every time we get the action movie kick of these guys being bad motherfuckers, it costs us at least one life. No side ever gets through a skirmish without casualties. Even in a thrilling SEAL-team-six-of-the-Old-West raid on the camp of kidnapping rapist fur trappers, they sneak in like ninjas but not everybody gets out. In the climax Blocker takes a stand for something he never would have imagined taking a stand for at the beginning of this movie. So you get that endorphin rush and everybody at home high fives each other, but after the fight is over and the bodies are buried you can only wonder jesus, was that really the best option we had?

Unsurprisingly this is one of those casts loaded with great actors. Adam Beach plays Yellow Hawk’s son Black Hawk, and though I like that he’s the rare Native American actor primarily known for contemporary roles, he’s also good here. It’s the last film for Scott Wilson (JUDGE DREDD, and Herschel from The Walking Dead) – he plays a racist asshole who doesn’t want them on his land. Stephen Lang (BAND OF THE HAND) is Blocker’s boss at the beginning. Timothee Chalamet is a young soldier who goes with them and I thought “oh wow, this must be his first big role,” but no, it does not turn out to be a big role and it actually came out just after CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and LADY BIRD. Later on, when Blocker agrees to pick up another prisoner for transport it turns out to be Ben Foster (THE PUNISHER, HOSTAGE, 3:10 TO YUMA, THE MECHANIC, HELL OR HIGH WATER) and I thought “Well of course it’s Ben Foster, of course Ben Foster is in this movie. How could I have been so naive?”

That’s an interesting turn of events because his character was a sergeant who fought alongside Blocker and now is in trouble for murdering an innocent Native. By this point Blocker has finally started to learn about the error of his whole life and here’s this asshole who’s disappointed in him for it. But he makes for a pretty clear argument against white supremacy. Fuck that guy.

In HOSTILES, war is hell, the old west is hell, life is hell. Pike is so brilliant at portraying the traumatized widow at the beginning and you’d hope that would be enough tragedy for her. But you keep having to watch her eyes looking on as people she has gotten to know are laying dead. And later we’re reminded (thankfully off screen) why women in particular aren’t safe. I think maybe having her around helps Blocker see it from a different angle. Maybe there are more savages out here than the ones he was focusing on. Maybe all along the real hostiles were–

–oh yeah, I guess that is obviously the meaning of the title, this is not exactly a revelation. It’s a really good movie though.

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12 Responses to “Hostiles”

  1. “I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour”

    I’m not sure about Conrad, but McMurtry and L’Amour, like, totally wrote westerns.

  2. The scene Bale has with Bill Camp where he quietly warns him “don’t you dare laugh” gives me chills.

  3. The first thing that strikes me when I watch HOSTILES is the ancient expression «Soldiers Heart». They knew thousands of years ago that people who came back from war and a life of violence weren’t themselves anymore. They had changed. It’s an interesting basis for a western, where we expect all problems to be solved with the use of fists, knives and guns. But not un-interesting for our times either. Maybe the only way the gun squad can be made to change their ways is for them to realize that they’re hurting themselves too.

  4. I came for Wes Studi and couldn’ty even make it through this one. I have failed you…

  5. L’Amour and McMurtry not only wrote westerns, but they’re quintessential westerns. That was a really weird statement. I read it three times to see if it was saying what I thought it was saying.

  6. This one slipped totally under my radar and I only caught it because it seemed like the best option on a cross-country flight, but I was stunned at how unfussily excellent it is. Great scene after great scene, consistently picking the right cliches to shatter and the right ones to embrace. It feels simultaneously completely timeless and absolutely relevant to this particular historical moment. Resolutely unflashy, but real god damn solid. Frankly one of the biggest surprises I’ve had cold-watching a movie in a good long while.

    But wait, was BLACK MASS poorly reviewed?

  7. I don’t remember as much about this one as I should, except Bale was amazing in a commanding, un-showy way, and also that the plot kept changing every 10 minutes, which I didn’t mind but I can see why alot of people would be annoyed. Oh! It’s gonna be like Predator with our badass team getting picked off by “Savage Indians” and oh…wait, that’s not what this is about. Ok, now they have to transport dangerous prisoner Ben Foster who…oh wait, that’s not what this is about either. Well, I guess it’s going to be like 48 Hrs with Bale and Studi teaming up and…oh, no? I mean, i guess it’s cool that they buck convention at every turn but I feel like a great movie could have been made about one of these plots instead of a pretty good movie about all of them.

  8. I just couldn’t get on board with Hostiles. It was just too much Bale and not enough Studi. I’d hoped it for to be a dual-header where Bale really learns from the dying chief – where we see that the older guy is just so much more comfortable with the bad stuff he’s done and himself than his American counterpart. And I suppose that is what happens, but you don’t get a solid sense of how. They must share maybe five words together in the entire film, and even then they’re rarely in the same shot. Did Studi phone it in, and get digitally added later, like Chris Lee in the Hobbit? I don’t know, but it felt like it.

    20 minutes in I was thinking I’d got it all charted out already – Bale would need Studi (and his son – the totally underused Adam Beach from Windtalkers) to kill the rogue natives. Plus him seeing how Pike can forgive the very people (in his eyes) for murdering her entire family would just put that final nail in the coffin of Bale coming to terms with his own racism and prejudice. Sadly, I felt you only got a skeleton-thin hint of this.

    Maybe I’m too hung up on the central conceit of an actual story or mission. I can get behind psychological journeys as well as the more common “go here and do that” sort of thing, but even textured and layered badass cinema like the Unforgiven is ultimately about Clint coming out of retirement to go and kill a guy. It’s all the subtext and shit going on underneath that makes it soar. I suppose Bale does succeed in his mission to get Studi to the burial grounds (spoiler), but it lacked the heart underneath.

    Review: Hostiles

    Back in the 90’s if you needed a distinctive Native American badass the choice would be obvious. You’d call Wes Studi. Now that might be an unfamiliar name to those not steeped in actio…

  9. He must have meant “…more THAN Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour”.

  10. I loved this. There are some legitimate gripes against it here, sure, but I was so taken in by Bale, Pike, the cinematography, music and the themes of loss and how we carry on.

  11. This one seemed competent, but never particularly inspired. The themes of “the West sure was brutal, huh?” and “hey, those Native Americans got kinda a raw deal” are so shopworn by now that they’re in family-friendly Disney blockbusters about Martians, so having them treated like mind-blowing revelations here seemed… sophomoric? At this point, there are no Westerns to deconstruct–deconstructionist Westerns *are* Westerns, full stop (unless you really want to see the piss taken out of Back To The Future Part 3, I guess).

    It also struck me as weird that for a warts-and-all portrait of the Old West, they depict the Army as desegregated with black servicemen being good friends with everyone else. It’s kinda like if Gangs of New York had Bill being best friends with a Chinese guy, but otherwise was exactly the same movie.

  12. For those who liked this one I recommend THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN with Bill Pullman.

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