' ' Cinema Romantico: Hostiles

Tuesday, February 06, 2018


Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” opens with a pack of Comanches murdering a white frontier family, save for the mom Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) who manages to escape. It is a scene reminiscent of classic westerns, one establishing the Indians as mere savages, irredeemable, and because the tone that “Hostiles” goes on to strike is very much in a revisionist vein, and because director Scott Cooper is determined to show the grisly violence born of Manifest Destiny was very much of a circular nature, blood just begetting more blood, one assumes that eventually the narrative will loop back around so that we can actually see this sequence, so to speak, from the Comanche point-of-view. But that never happens. For as outsized as “Hostiles” is, in length and in aesthetic, and for much as it labors under the delusion of pulling out the rug on how the west was really won, in the end, it simply re-employs the western as a means to extract redemption for a white man, which might be a punchline if this movie didn’t take itself so seriously.

The white man in this case is Army Major Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), ordered by his Fort Berringer superior to escort dying Cheyenne chief Yellowhawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to his ancestral homeland in Montana. Blocker initially refuses the order, until he is galled into it, since he possesses a deep-seated hatred of Yellowhawk, an old foe, and the Indian race in general. And just to ensure we are clear on this hatred, after distressingly agreeing to his orders, we see Blocker sink to his knees and scream at the heavens, a fairly stock moment of internal anguish. Then again, at least here Cooper employs a few jump cuts to speed us through the scene rather than forcing us to interminably linger which is his modus operandi pretty much everywhere else.

Indeed, “Hostiles” tries threading the nigh impossible needle between Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” If the latter leaned hard into the myth of the old west by employing long stretches of silence and magnificent, mountainous music to evince an monumental theatricality, Cooper employs those same effects to demystify, implementing untold silences between spates of agonizingly serious passages of dialogue, painting us as so many churchgoers asked to sit there during untold mini-sermons to reflect upon all the moral exhortations. Both “Unforgiven” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” allowed themselves flights of fancy, comic or otherwise, but Cooper drains so much life from the proceedings that watching “Hostiles” feels less like watching a movie than a funeral march, mistaking mere solemnity for significance, for someone we didn’t like.

Clearly Cooper yearns to see the Native American plight through an equitable lens, which is why he makes space for a Harper’s Weekly Correspondent (Bill Camp) to briefly undress Blocker for his misdeeds as well as a Colonel’s wife (Robyn Malcolm) to express surprisingly progressive viewpoints about Native American genocide. These characters, frankly, are never lived in, just there, a means to both-sides it which is to say a means for the film to demonstrate its progressive bonafides, a concession to contemporary viewpoints. But that makes it odd, then, that a movie set then that is nevertheless hip to the way it is now never makes space for its Native American characters.

Q’orianka Kilcher and Adam Beach might be in this movie but you hardly know it so little do they have to do, existing merely as glorified extras, as do all the Cheyennes, really, even Studi’s Yellowhawk whose mere stoic presence is, I guess, meant to engender something noble, another stereotype of classic westerns that Cooper never rectifies. Then again, “Hostiles” is trying to present Blocker as the loathsome racist he is, intentionally tempering that prejudice with dutiful manners toward Rosalie when she winds up in their group as well as his love toward a black soldier in the regiment, wanting nothing to do with the Indians he so clearly despises, staying away from them and them from him. Rather than initiating friendly action with some kumbaya peace offering, it is simply in the heat of battle when the Comanches attack that Blocker and Yellowhawk stand, by necessity, side-by-side.

As such, the change in Blocker comes from within rather than any kind of forced external kumbaya, which is rather commendable, and Bale meets the challenge. The way he merely twitches his formidable mustache makes it seem as if he is philosophically chewing over his myriad past sins, and the way he tilts his head toward the sky while standing rock solid seems to suggest something unavoidable building up within. Yet at the same time, in never hearing Native American voices, it suggests that this white man is sort of prescribing his own absolution, which can’t help but feel like a grave insult. That might have been side-stepped had the movie simply given itself over to the violence it suggests throughout is un-killable, only to opt for a conclusion suggesting rebirth, a rebirth that Bale’s final scene demeanor does not quite suggest his character deserves, almost as if he, the actor, knows, but the movie does not, that his redemption is unearned.

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