Wednesday, January 31, 2018

In Theaters: HOSTILES (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Scott Cooper. Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach, Stephen Lang, Scott Wilson, Timothee Chalamet, Q'orianka Kilcher, Peter Mullan, Jonathan Majors, Bill Camp, Paul Anderson, Ryan Bingham, Tanaya Beatty, Xavier Horsechief, John Benjamin Hickey, David Midthunder, Robyn Malcolm, Boots Southerland, Scott Shepherd. (R, 135 mins)

Based on an unpublished novel written by veteran screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, MISSING, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) way back in the 1980s (Stewart died in 1999, but still gets an executive producer credit here), HOSTILES is a western that works despite being torn between revisionism and genre standards. Written and directed by Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART), HOSTILES reunites the filmmaker with his OUT OF THE FURNACE star Christian Bale, and while it has moments that aspire to the likes of pre-self-parody Terrence Malick and something like Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN (even stealing the "killed everything that's walked or crawled" line) or Andrew Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, it ultimately leans more toward the OPEN RANGE and the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA side of things. And there's nothing wrong with that because those were fine westerns, and while the languid pacing likely won't bother fans of revisionist westerns, the more commercial, mainstream moviegoers may get a little fidgety. HOSTILES was acquired by Byron Allen's upstart Entertainment Studios, and after the surprise summer hit 47 METERS DOWN and last fall's social media bomb FRIEND REQUEST, Allen clearly intended HOSTILES to be his ticket to the Oscars. It was given a limited rollout at Christmas 2017 and finally expanded nationwide a month later, but it was all for naught. It's a very good movie, probably Cooper's most accomplished yet (and a nice rebound from the disappointing BLACK MASS, the Whitey Bulger biopic starring a pair of ice blue contact lenses resting on the corneas of Johnny Depp), but it obviously didn't connect with the Academy, netting a grand total of zero nominations.

A veteran of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, about-to-retire US Army Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) is a respected leader with no love for Native Americans, viewing them as "savages" and "animals." He's assigned by his commander (Stephen Lang), under orders from President Benjamin Harrison, to lead a military escort for imprisoned tribal chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico back to his tribal land in Montana. Yellow Hawk has cancer and his days are numbered, and as a goodwill gesture, the President has granted the aging chief's final wish to die and be buried on his land. Having faced Yellow Hawk in battle and losing several men under his command to him, Blocker initially refuses the order until he's threatened with a court-martial and the loss of his pension. Blocker is accompanied by the most trusted soldiers under his command--Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Major Woodson (Jonathan Majors)--along with West Point graduate Lt. Kidder (Jesse Plemons), and fresh-faced, French-born rookie Pvt. DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet). As soon as they're far enough from the base, bitter Blocker drops the niceties, grabs a pair of knives and challenges Yellow Hawk to a fight, only to be stoically rebuffed when the chief tells him he isn't afraid of death. Instead, Blocker orders Yellow Hawk and his family--son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Q'orianka Kilcher), grandson Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), and daughter Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty) to be chained for the duration of the trip. Shortly into the journey, they encounter shell-shocked widow Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who just saw her husband scalped and three children murdered by Comanche warriors in an almost unbearably grim and brutal opening sequence. Rosalie joins them, and with those Comanches still in the vicinity, Blocker is ultimately forced to accept the help of sworn enemy Yellow Hawk, and that's before things get even more complicated when a stop at the next military outpost results in them adding three additional members to the party--two officers escorting Sgt. Wills (Ben Foster), a prisoner due for execution who, conveniently enough, used to be under Blocker's command.

There's no shortage of formulaic elements to HOSTILES, starting with the "one last job" motif as Blocker is set to retire once he's finished escorting Yellow Hawk to his tribal land. And, of course, they're determined to make it there if they don't kill each other first!  But there's some interesting character development throughout, primarily with the arc of Bale's Blocker. It's obvious that he and Yellow Hawk will come around to reaching a mutual respect with the understanding that battle was battle, that was then and this is now. But the soldiers accompanying Blocker ultimately symbolize the stages of that arc, with DeJardin representing the youthful naivete of a young Blocker before experiencing the horrors of war; the ruthless, racist Wills serving as Blocker's dark side, reminding him of what a vicious killer of "redskins" he used to be; upstanding and loyal Woodson demonstrating his capacity for empathy; and Metz exemplifying the ability to change and recognize and correct the errors of the past. Metz starts out reminiscing about the good old days of scalping "savages" but he's the first to give a peace offering to Yellow Hawk on the journey and apologize for the things that happened to him and his people. Granted, Metz's abrupt come-to-Jesus moment is one of the film's missteps, handled in a clumsily heavy-handed and melodramatic way by Cooper. The fleshing out of Bale's character does come at the expense of Pike's, who's endured an inconceivable tragedy yet her stages of grief are given somewhat of a short shrift. Still, at the end of the day, these are minor quibbles for an overall excellent film that runs the gamut from some truly stomach-turning violence to powerful moments of genuine heartbreak and emotion. It's got a terrific cast of character actor ringers (Studi can play this kind of role in his sleep, but he does it better than anyone), beautiful imagery from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (THE GREY), and some nicely complex characterizations that help elevate the film's more cookie-cutter elements into something a little more ambitious.

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