Thursday, 1 February 2018

Hostiles





An old-fashioned, melodramatic, glacially-paced epic western, full of predictable violence, that tries to be politically correct by having Native Americans teach things to the stupid white man (it’s always about the white man) - no wonder most film critics had little use for Hostiles. Having glanced at some reviews, you couldn’t have dragged me to the theatre (westerns are very far from my favourite genre), except that I heard an interview with Winnipeg Indigenous actor Adam Beach, who has a significant role in the film, and he believed in it wholeheartedly. So I went. And …

I loved it!

Seriously, everything I wrote above is true, but Scott Cooper’s Hostiles blew me away and made me think that most critics didn’t understand the film at all. 

Christian Bale is (no surprise) magnificent (and perfectly cast) as Captain Joseph Blocker, a soldier stationed in New Mexico in 1892 who has made a career of slaughtering Native Americans (including innocent families) who in turn are slaughtering white soldiers and innocent white families. It is a time and place where violence and death (in various forms) can hide behind every rock and tree. It’s a hard time to be alive and the stoic Blocker is a man who seems perfectly-suited to this mad world, except that beneath the surface this intelligent man is consumed with hatred and pain, caused primarily by watching so many friends die horrifically at the hands of Native Americans, but also by his own acts of violence.

One of Blocker’s most hated adversaries is Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief who has killed some of his friends and has been imprisoned at his base for the past seven years. But now Yellow Hawk is dying and no less than the president of the United States has ordered that the chief and his family be released and escorted back to his home in Montana. Because of Blocker’s knowledge of the trails to Montana and of the Cheyenne language, he is ordered to lead that escort. Blocker is furious about the assignment, but is forced to carry it out.

Four soldiers (including one played by the young Timothee Chalamet, who is everywhere) comprise the escort for Yellow Hawk and his children and grandchild (including his son, Black Hawk, played by Beach). They begin the long and treacherous journey north to Montana. On their first day out they meet Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a young mother whose entire family (including three young children) have just been slaughtered by a small band of Comanches (the film's horrific opening scene). Blocker knows he can’t leave her alone in the remains of her home, so she joins the group, providing the opportunity for a number of beautiful scenes and conversations as well as fascinating confrontations between Rosalee and Yellow Hawk’s family. 

But the journey has barely begun. As mentioned above, Hostiles is a very slow-paced film and there is time for many thoughtful conversations (those with the Native Americans are all in Cheyenne), punctuated by bursts of violence. More lives will be lost than were even part of the escort at the beginning, as the party encounters that band of Comanches, a nasty group of fur traders, an American soldier (Ben Foster) on his way to be hanged for war crimes (he tells Blocker that he was doing no more than Blocker did), and some ranchers.

But at its heart, Hostiles is about the journey of one man: Joseph Blocker; not so much the physical journey from New Mexico to Montana, but a spiritual, psychological and emotional journey that will force him to deal with all that pain and hatred in a shattering but profound way.

So yes, Hostiles is about a white man whose journey with Native Americans will open his eyes. But Bale’s performance is so extraordinary (he deserved an Oscar nomination) and the film is so intelligent that this questionable premise is allowed to become part of a much larger and richer story: The story of a strong woman facing her own demons of pain and hatred; the story of a strong Indigenous leader (Studi’s performance is equal to Bale’s, though his role is much smaller) doing the same; the story of a Native American family which has suffered so much and continues to suffer, yet have room for kind acts; the story of racism in its various forms; the story of forgiveness in unforeseen places; and the story of violence and whether there is any way for human beings to avoid killing each other.

Hostiles isn’t perfect. There is dialogue that feels anachronistic, there are scenes of violence that infuriated me (though the film doesn’t, with one exception, glorify violence in any way), and there is a sense that the film is trying too hard to be revisionist in a way that will please everyone. But the acting is superb (Pike is also brilliant), the cinematography is gorgeous, the score is a classic, the writing is intelligent and the slow pace is sublime. Yes, far from being a cause for criticism, the slow pace turns Hostiles into a poetic work of art, aided by the constant tension facing everyone on the journey. It is only when the film is interrupted by violent action that it faces the danger of losing its way.

In 1892, soldiers called the Native Americans hostiles, but Hostiles makes clear that the term applies to all sides in the conflicts. It was a dark hostile time, and we still live in its wake. But Hostiles is full of glimpses of light shining in that darkness. Hostiles gets somewhere between ***+ and ****. It would have made my top fifteen of 2017 if I had seen it in time. My mug is up.

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