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Hostiles (2017)

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Score: 7/10

Genre: Western and Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 13 min.

Release Date: December 22nd, 2017 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Scott Cooper Actors: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Bill Camp, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, Ben Foster

A

s Wesley Quaid attempts to defend his tiny ranch from marauding Comanches who have come for the horses, he’s shot by a bullet, pierced by an arrow, and then scalped. Meanwhile, his two young girls are also gunned down, though his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) manages to run off into the woods, still clinging to the corpse of their third child, a baby named Jacob. In the blink of an eye, her world is shattered – or soaked in blood like the various players in 2015’s “The Revenant.” “Hostiles” may be set in the Old West (specifically 1892), but it hardly feels like a traditional Western. Its design and subject matter are portrayed entirely in the grim, bloodthirsty styling of modernized Neo-Westerns, where bloodletting and human suffering are more prevalent than gun duels in a dusty corral.

From here, audiences are treated to the reverse example of barbarism: the capture and torture of Apaches by cavalrymen. At Fort Berringer in New Mexico, Captain Joseph “Joe” Blocker (Christian Bale) has a long career of fighting the Indian enemy. This includes Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who has been imprisoned for seven years. Along with several of his family members, the elderly chief is granted his request to go home to die – at the Valley of the Bears in Montana. Blocker has nothing but hatred for the opponents he has been ordered to combat, but he must set aside this contempt for a final task – insisted upon by President Harrison himself – of transporting Yellow Hawk up north, or risk being courtmartialed and losing his pension.

With Blocker’s obdurate racism, his eye-for-an-eye philosophies on life, and a platoon of men sworn to follow his command, the stage is set for a dark, ugly film. “Hostiles” works very quickly to establish characters for whom the viewer can muster sympathy, but without the attention to building genuine emotions or believable backstories. Rosalie is a protagonist only because her family was slaughtered – not because her love for them is effectively demonstrated. Joe’s intolerance toward Native Americans isn’t because of a personal injustice witnessed onscreen; instead, it’s present solely because supporting characters state that his enmity has grown over the decades of warring. And his sergeant, Tommy (Rory Cochrane), is a dear friend; but only because his camaraderie has persisted through so many previous episodes – a history that audiences don’t get to see. As a result, the reaction to various characters’ resolutions are limited at best; death may be inherently tragic, but a deeper sense of connection is superficial.

Rather than a fast-paced, desert-bound adventure, “Hostiles” is a meditation on grief and general adversity and coping with draconian livelihoods. Life in the Old West is so harsh, the roles can only seem to bond over shared calamities. It’s brooding and brutal and spontaneously violent, stepping very far away from the action of standard Westerns. Despite the mountainous widescreen vistas and an occasional song by a campfire, “Hostiles” is unrecognizable as a Western; instead, it’s more like a gangster movie that happens to have horses and rifles and wide-brimmed hats. It’s also rather long, as a second part to the picture begins as the convoy enters Colorado, gaining extra missions and recruiting additional participants.

But all of these pieces are unyieldingly consistent in tone and vision. Writer/director Scott Cooper, whose other projects are equally as dour (“Out of the Furnace,” “Black Mass”), amusingly constructs a tale of hostilities, exhibiting all the ways in which evils and oppressions can surface, from wartime opposition to opportunistic cutthroats to mental traumas and even to the weather. In this steady display of ruthless scenarios, everyone and everything is a killer in some way (oddly more reminiscent of “Predators” than “The Homesman,” with which this film shares an examination of the hardships of 19th century life; or, perhaps, it’s like a mean-spirited “Dances with Wolves”). Fortunately, despite a senseless and nihilistic yet boisterous finale, there’s moderate satisfaction to be found in the savage destruction of so many villains; revenge, particularly when it seems deserved by monstrous scoundrels, is an easy source of entertainment.

– Mike Massie

 



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