“Hostiles” captures cultural tensions

By: Luke Parker, Columnist

Photo courtesy of indiewire.com

“Hostiles” is an enthralling and often disturbing portrait of the healing capabilities a collection of tiny actions can have, with time, on even the deepest of emotional wounds and the sharpest of racial divides. Running just over two hours, this film requires patience. The characters’ long journey towards Montana’s grasslands is methodically wrought out, while their journey towards redemption is methodically drawn out. Written for the screen and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), “Hostiles” is unyielding and brutal, and is a fine addition to the masterclass of modern westerns.

Using the words of English-bred author D.H. Lawrence, the screen first defines the American soul as “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”  Given the basic concept of the narrative that will proceed and our basic understanding of the time period in which it is set, the assumption is that this soul belongs to the dominant, land-thieving, greedy white men. Yet, ironically, the scene that follows depicts a cruel slaughtering committed not by U.S. soldiers, but by a Comanche party. The attack leaves a father scalped, his two daughters and infant child shot, and his wife (Rosamund Pike), who managed to hide, broken.  This shocking enactment is only the first in a series of conservatively lifelike conflicts.

The screams of this woman’s horror are quickly drowned out by those of another; this time it is an Apache family on the brink of dissolution. Their maltreatment is steered by the cold and tired face of Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who, as legend tells it, has taken more scalps than Sitting Bull himself. He is not timid about his numerous and belligerent hostilities towards Native Americans (“Is there a better way?” he responds after being questioned of his aggressive war tactics), but when orders come down from the president to escort the cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his homeland, the task begrudgingly falls upon him.

Blocker initially refuses. In his eyes, Yellow Hawk is a murderous brute – no one would be surprised if this description was mirrored upon the Captain. But after the pension for his upcoming retirement is threatened, he finally agrees, and with a surprisingly diverse squadron of hand-picked cavalrymen – including a black man and a young French private – Blocker sets out with Yellow Hawk and his family to the Valley of the Bears, the chief’s requested resting place.

This trek from New Mexico to Montana provides a gorgeous variety of landscapes and eye-pandering skies, but also a number of harrowing obstacles; this land is unforgiving. It is also eventful, as the overarching journey is interrupted several times. They are first led to Mrs. Quaid (Pike), who they find in complete mental dismemberment, and who will accompany them for the duration of the film. Her recent devastations collaborate well with Blocker’s torn past, as a friendship of mutual respect and sympathy emerges. One scene, in which Mrs. Quaid offers the Captain shelter in her tent from a relentless storm, contains the intimacy of the grandest of love tales, without the romance. It is a truly heartwarming display.

The caravan also has the vicious and surrounding Comanche, a murderous prisoner (Ben Foster) that needs transporting, and a sideshow of Wild West barriers to concern themselves over. All of this tension is amplified by the realistic approach Cooper sets out to achieve, given that these characters, who travel in empty meadows and open grasslands, are at all times completely exposed to a sudden and brutal death. Cooper excellently accelerates the danger factor found in his Western narratives; the calmest of times can be – and are – quickly replaced by moments of dire importance.

However, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the film is the gradual deflowering of Blocker’s character. Bale once again hones in as a head-sick individual, as we learn that the man notorious for his head count is also well-bred: being able to speak with Native Americans in their languages, and spending his spare time re-reading “Julius Caesar” in its original Latin text.  It is obvious that his extended stay in this Western jungle and in the line of duty has made him bitter and has taught him that killing is the only way to live.

Bale’s performance – which should have at least been and hopefully was in the discussion of this year’s Oscar nominations – is also strongest in scenes in which Blocker must act robust. Especially when he is conversing with his longtime friend Metz (Rory Cochrane), who himself has succumbed to the mental anxieties war stipulates, Blocker’s struggle to contain his demons is apparent, sometimes slipping through the cracks of his wrinkled eyes.

With a strong supporting cast led by Studi’s natural and authentic portrayal of a dying ceremonial man, a wicked powerful score by Max Richter, and a Western tapestry designed by Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayangi, there is no shame in throwing “Hostiles” in the same basket as “The Assassination of Jesse James,” or “The Revenant.” Though it feels like a hybrid between “3:10 to Yuma” and “Unforgiven” (there is one line here nearly plagiarized from the Clint Eastwood classic), this film will not surpass those heights.  But its effort is commendable.   

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