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(2017) ** 1/2 R
134 min. Entertainment Studios. Director: Scott Cooper. Cast: Scott Shepherd, Rosamund Pike, Ava Cooper, Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Stephen Lang, Timothée Chalamet, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Q'orianka Kilcher, Ben Foster, Peter Mullan, Bill Camp, Scott Wilson.

/content/films/5095/1.jpgThe days when movie Westerns were “Cowboys & Indians” writ large are long gone. Westerns grew up a bit, empathizing with Native Americans even if they remained in support of white leads. The genre may be on life support, given a general lack of popularity with the American public and abroad, but filmmakers still feel the pull to put their mark on the genre. That explains Hostiles, writer-director Scott Cooper’s handsome, well-acted, but somewhat clodhopping modern Western.

At its best, Hostiles works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption. In 1892, Army Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (a resonant Christian Bale) gets an order he literally can’t refuse, try as he might. He and a small group of soldiers are to escort ailing native Chief Yellow Hawk (the great Wes Studi) from New Mexico’s Fort Berringer back to his Montana homeland to die with dignity. Blocker’s career has been spent in brutal conflict with Native American tribes, including the Comanches of Yellow Hawk. Friends have died at Yellow Hawk’s hands, and Blocker seeks every option but his orders, including the offer of a “let’s settle this like men” knife fight.

But no, we’re in for a classic Western journey across a dangerous physical landscape, as well as the comparably harsh psychic terrain of scarred men. Yellow Hawk stoically endures his physical pain and the hatred of his escorts, keeping a watchful eye for his own sake and that of his attendant family members. But our focus frustratingly remains on the white people and Blocker’s struggle to reach empathy for a community much more wronged than his own by the war both have fought.

Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie Quaid, a widow left suicidal by the murder of her husband and young child. The killers were Comanche, setting up added tension since Rosalie also gets an escort from Blocker and his party. Rosalie plays double duty as a plot device, since she also allows for romantic tension with Joseph. Another foil arrives in the form of Ben Foster’s Sergeant Charles Wills, once a friend and colleague of Blocker, now a criminal being transported. Willis advocates for his own release and the victimization of the Comanches, all the while insisting Blocker is no better than him.

But of course he is better. We know this because others keep telling him he’s a good man, he’s a fine man, as he stares back unconvinced. The story’s true purpose is to morally educate and redeem him, which occurs predictably and accompanied by action beats that forge the new Blocker in fire. Hostiles gives the white people of the time more credit than they’re due, with no less than three formerly bigoted white characters making grand, sympathetic gestures to the Comanches.

If Hostiles proves hamhanded in story, Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautiful location cinematography helps to compensate, as does an interesting grab bag of character actors supporting the leads: Adam Beach and Q'orianka Kilcher as Studi’s family; Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Stephen Lang, and current Best Actor nominee Timothee Chalamet as soldiers; and Scott Wilson and Bill Camp as additional antagonists to Blocker. There’s one other thing going for Hostiles: if you’re in the mood to see a Western on the big screen, it’s the only game in town.

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