TELLURIDE – Where do we even start with Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles”? Well, let’s get the specifics out of the way first.
The independently financed western, which premiered at the 44th Telluride Film Festival, is set in 1892 toward the end of the American government’s systematic decimation of the Native American people. “Hostiles” follows Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a retiring Army captain who is ordered to accompany, along with a number of other soldiers under his command, a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief) from New Mexico to Montana. Along the way they pick up Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a settler who has just endured a horrifying tragedy and Philip Willis (Ben Foster), an army officer who has been sentenced to death for a brutal crime. The road north is treacherous, deadly and it feels like hardly a day goes by without something brutal happening to someone in the party. Seems simple enough, right?
Perhaps we should focus on the positives first.
Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is gorgeous. There are images of the plains and mountains of the Western United States that are delicately captured in the twilight to breathtaking effect.
Bale and Pike are superb. Despite some melodramatic tendencies and strange choices in Cooper’s script they make you have sympathy and compassion for each of their characters (well, for the most part). In limited screen time Jesse Plemmons finds a way to make an impression and Rory Cochrane wonderfully portrays the melancholy of a life long soldier who can’t escape the memories of the almost never-ending campaign against Native Americans he’s participated in.
Cooper stages some very well executed run ins along the journey including the film’s first scene which features Rosalie’s family being attacked by renegade Comanche Indians. These are some of the best sequences in the film and they capture the horror many experienced during the “wild” west where just surviving the night was a blessing.
Now, as for the rest of the picture let’s take a deep breath and consider the following.
The main through line of “Hostiles” is not really the long path Chief Yellow Hawk (Studi) takes to get back home, but whether Joseph can overcome his prejudices against a people he has watched massacre his fellow soldiers and innocent civilians. Can he understand what the Native Americans were fighting for? Can he respect their culture and fundamental rights? In theory, this is an intriguing proposition except Cooper starts Joseph so far on the anti-Native American spectrum it makes his eventual arc a bit hard to swallow. Bale does everything he can to make the understanding of Joseph’s worldview less jarring, but it still feels like the character just flips a switch when the movie needs him to. This after numerous scenes where he recounts the almost never-ending terrible deeds he’s witnessed by the “enemy.” Cooper tries to balance this by having Joseph be reminded of his own atrocities he committed over the years but for a film that wants to be rooted realistic in its depiction of the time period it just rings false.
There’s also the glaring problem that the film is entirely from the perspective of a white man (or woman). During one night of respite along the way Joseph and Rosalie have a civilized dinner with a commanding officer and his wife. Obviously, the subject of the Indians they are accompanying is brought up. The officer’s wife (Robyn Malcolm) starts to discuss what we obviously understand now, that this was their country and we came in and took it from them like it was ours. Why wouldn’t they fight back? Her husband quickly quiets her, but this is the perspective Cooper wants the audience to leave the theater with. Settlers and the government took this land from those who nurtured it for hundreds of years before the white man arrived. Yet, for the most part, Yellow Hawk and his family are quiet bystanders to the drama unfolding in front of them. Contrast that to Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River” another story involving the plight of Native Americans told initially from two white characters points of view. The difference in “River” is that Taylor let’s Gil Birmingham’s character be heard prominently. His perspective is just as important and valid in the overall story. Despite Cooper’s best intentions that simply isn’t the case here.
Cooper also has populated the trek with so many characters and unnecessary storylines that it starts to become distracting. Why is Foster playing yet another “crazy” character who won’t shut up? When Joseph meets the soldiers accompanying him in New Mexico why isn’t it ever explained why the youngest one is French? What is the point in that choice when he barely lasts in the movie? (And we’re not even tackling the subject of why cast Timothée Chalamet in the role because he was relatively unknown at the time, but still…). Why is it the only African American character, another soldier under Joseph’s command, the one singing around the campfire first? (And, yes, you can guess the other issue with his character pretty easily). Why do our two leads both have scenes where they scream in the air in distraught pain that is pretty much a cinematic cliché in 2017? If so many characters have to die to make the larger point of the travesty of America’s campaign and prejudices against Native Americans why are only the pretty characters alive at the end? And why is the “hope” in their hands? That’s just the beginning of the head scratching and frustrating questions the film leaves you with.
Clearly, Cooper’s historical intentions are well founded and justified. No one would argue that point. We just wish the final product weren’t so problematic. [C+]