Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 27, 2018 4:40 pm 
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A journey of attrition that seeks to plumb the Western genre

The actor Scott Cooper has done his best work as a director on the 2009 Crazy Heart, where Jeff Bridges delivers a "master class in acting" (I'm quoting my own review) as a drunken but dangerously charming country singer on the skids, backed up by the always superb Robert Duvall and career-best performances by Colin Farrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal. No such luck with Hostiles, Cooper's stab at a Western, which is handsomely made but overwhelmed both by its excess of violence and cruelty and by its overambitious stab at significance, whose actual significance nobody seems quite able to figure out.

There is also a largely blank main character, played by Christian Bale at his most stolid and macho. Bale played the lead in Cooper's more enjoyable, but still downbeat, 2013 working-class drama Out of the Furnace. This time we're in the American West, in 1892. Bale plays US Army Cavalry Captain Joseph J. Blocker, an American Army officer with a heroic past and history of violence against Native Americans in the now winding down Indian Wars. The genocidal slaughter is no longer fashionable, but Blocker was just doing his job. A loyal military man, he now backs down despite his strong objections, and agrees to follow a distasteful order from President Harrison himself at the insistence of his commanding officer, Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) to convey a dying Cheyenne prisoner whom he despises, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico to be let free to expire in his native lands in Montana.

The family includes Q'orianka Kilcher, who played opposite Bale in Terrence Malick's The New World. She's wasted here. In fact all the Native American characters and actors are wasted because they are merely tokens, even though they get to speak a Native language, with subtitles. (Blocker hates Indians, but he is fluent in Cheyenne.) And this isn't about Native people. It's about white people's rage and guilt and search for resolution. They don't find it. Neither does the ambiguously titled Hostiles. The story is overstuffed with characters and unnecessary plot. There is a veteran friend of Blocker, Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), whose guilt drives him half mad. There is another prisoner to be conveyed, added later, this one definitely a bad guy, one Sgt. James Wills, played by Ben Foster. And he will make a lot of trouble. As if there weren't enough. There are also lawless fur trappers.

This movie manages to be both ultra-violent and slow. We get a preview of the horror, a sequence in which Mrs. Rosalie Quaid, a settler's wife, played by Rosamund Pike, sees her whole family, husband, two young girls, and babe in arms, wiped out by Comanche bullets and arrows. Yes, the baby is killed by a bullet. Her mother pretends it is still alive, till Blocker and his men come along and rescue her. She stages a dramatic display of despair, attempting to dig a grave - theatrics that somehow don't fit a stoical Anglo-Saxon settler's wife - but I wan't there.

This comes after the first of several violent encounters that gradually pare down the numbers of Capt. Blocker's party. One of the first to go is a young soldier who's both inexperienced and French, played by Timothée Chalamet, who's shot and unceremoniously abandoned and forgotten early on - a fate Chalamet is unlikely to suffer again now he's a Best Actor Oscar nominee. In fact characters get knocked off one by one much like the Norwegian gangster film, In Order of Disappearance. Except in that film, it's funny and fun. Here it's decidedly not.

There is a lot of burial and grieving (or chortling), and some Bible reading, aloud. Capt. Blocker, no redneck rube, reads Julius Caesar in Latin. But what is he thinking? We don't know, and Bale's expressions are hidden by his Victorian whiskers.

With its murders and disembowelings and rapes, Hostiles has been called (by David Erlich in Indiewire) "one of the most brutal Westerns ever made." That's a large claim for a brutal genre; but there is a relentless grimness about this movie. But also reconciliation. Along the way, the Captain befriends Chief Yellow Hawk, having admitted the Native Americans' importance in helping defend the party from the Comanches; but this comes after saying extremely bad things about him earlier. The point is, both "sides" have committed atrocities. But the only immediate solution seems to be killing more people, including a Montana white settler and his sons.

Perhaps Cooper is right to offer all the longeurs, so that the horrific moments have more impact, and don't read as parts of an effort to shock and stimulate the audience. But there's no way of making coherent sense out of this film, and as Peter Debruge wrote in Variety when it debuted at Telluride, "it isn't nearly as progressive as it thinks" - only more violent, and more foul-mouthed ("fucking" is in), than its predecessors.

In an impressively "fair and balanced" review, A.O. Scott in the NY Times kindly describes Cooper as "grappling" with "the contradictions of the Western genre." The movie, Scott says, "wants to be both a throwback and an advance," winding up being "not so much a new kind of western as every possible kind — vintage, revisionist, elegiac, feminist." But the movie's made "interesting," Scott says, because it pursues this doomed ambition with "sincerity and intelligence." The "sincerity" may have outstripped the "intelligence." "Interesting" is the word Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian uses for Hostiles: "a flawed, but interesting drama." But the maddening mix of long pauses and brief periods of ultra-violence threatens to frustrate our interest.

There are good production values, seen in the realistic-looking western settlements, and a nicely staged 1892 rural Montana train station at the end where everybody looks satisfyingly authentic. (Jim Jarmusch did all that sort of thing better on a lower budget in Dead Man though - a far more memorable and enjoyable movie, with a wiser, subtler take on Native Americans.) The subtle score by Max Richter is fine, and Masanobu Takayanagi's handsome cinematography, avoiding excessive closeups, includes a constant series of spectacularly beautiful western landscapes that look great on the big screen. The screenplay by Scott was adapted from a manuscript left by the late Donald E. Stewart, who penned The Search for Red October's script.

Hostiles, 134 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 2017, with ten other festivals including Toronto and Rome. US theatrical release began 26 Jan. 2018.

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