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by Jay Seaver

"The West is harsh and cruel, and you've got to choose otherwise."
4 stars

Scott Cooper's new film is the latest film to de-mythologize the Western, shining a light on the ugly underpinnings of a genre once synonymous with simply morality and violence that provides a definitive resolution. This period and format has been so thoroughly deconstructed that one can watch "Hostiles" and not be entirely sure whether it is mean enough, despite it being quite brutal when it decides to dispatch a character or three, leaving little doubt that is not particularly interested in heroes from its beginning. It's the kind of movie where "going soft" is probably the best thing that could happen, and the big question is whether the movie earns it.

It's going to have a long way to get there, though it starts with the simple premise of a gunslinger escorting a party through hostile territory. The party being escorted is Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who has been a prisoner in a New Mexico fort for the past seven years, and though once a fierce warrior, is now dying of cancer and has been granted clemency to return home to Montana with his family to die. The man chosen to lead the escort party is Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who knows the territory and speaks the language, but he and Yellow Hawk are old, bitter enemies. All involved know the route is dangerous, a fact underscored when they find Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) in a homestead burnt out after a brutal attack by the Comanche.

That, of course, is just the shell of the movie; it doesn't get into how the group chosen to make up Blocker's party forms an intriguing cross-section of the U.S. Army, circa 1892, or how one must spend much of the movie turning the kindness Yellow Hawk's family shows Rosalie over in one's head, wondering if it's defensive or if it's messed up to question it. Or how Scott Cooper's screenplay (based upon a manuscript by the late Donald E. Stewart) in many ways seems to invert the way movies work, with its sharpest moments toward the beginning, particularly the scene where Blocker gets his assignment: It would be something very familiar, with Christian Bale playing the burnt-out veteran resisting being pushed aside (he will be mustered out after this mission) and Stephen Lang as the more moderate commanding officer, but Cooper sticks Bill Camp in there as a writer from back east, seemingly just to needle Blocker and bring out the worst in him, making the scene downright uncomfortable.

It's the showiest scene Bale gets, to the extent that it's almost easier to track his character's maturation by his facial hair than his words (though he keeps a respectable 19th-century mustache throughout, he's progressively hiding behind less beard as the film goes on). It's a performance that perhaps reflects a growing uncertainty, both in how he relates the Natives and the others around him and what his life will be when he's no longer in the army. There's something similar going on with Rosamund Pike - she's obviously great when the annihilation of Rosalie's family is fresh and she gets to play raw, wordless grief and rage, a little harder to read when she's started to accept that the Indians in this party aren't the same as the ones who killed her husband, but able to communicate that confusion and uncertainty. Studi, meanwhile, doesn't get outbursts or flashbacks showing him as a fearsome warrior; instead, he's got flashes of pride, and silent looks where one can maybe see the humiliation of being entrusted to a long-time foe trying to coexist with relief at maybe finding peace.

There's an impressive supporting cast, too, from Lang and Camp to the Natives - Adam Beach and Xavier Horsechief especially fit their parts like cloves - to a really impressive group as Blocker's party: Rory Cochrane as a world-weary sergeant, Jonathan Majors as the gruff African-American soldier who can't quite be friends with Blocker, Jesse Plemons as an idealistic officer just out of West Point, and Timothée Chalamet as a green immigrant private. Ben Foster enters midway through as an unrepentant monster of a Native-hating soldier, someone Blocker may or may not be a hair's-breadth away from, and he remains a perfectly sadistic western villain.

They're all noteworthy for their connections to the main trio, and so the big question is whether the audience winds up feeling that the film earns progress made by those three, even though there aren't any obvious inflection points. I think it does. It does so fairly explicitly between lines of dialogue and explanations, to the point where it's practically acknowledged within the movie that there's no simple way to say you've grown weary of vengeance and war and make it sound good. But, ultimately, you have to believe that the characters have reached that point in part because you want to believe someone can get there without the one horrible-but-cathartic moment, just like you maybe have to figure out that a person needs attachments and purpose that is not only outside of war but not rooted in conflict to be human, and maybe these old enemies have found it.

At least, that's what one needs to enjoy this as a western as something more than just reveling in some fairly cruel violence, though there is much to enjoy. There's the beautiful 35mm photography that reminds the audience of the beauty of these lands but is also twisted to a sinister purpose, as the first act trains the audience to see a wide beauty shot as coming from the perspective of Comanche raiders and thus a prelude to disaster. There are some brilliantly shot and creative bits of action, from the Cheyenne throwing themselves into a fray despite being shackled to sitting back with the women as they can only imagine what the men are doing in their name. There's the horrific juxtaposition of the bounty and the mercilessness of the wild west, and the expert deployment of actors who don't really get enough chances to make westerns (they really should be half of Lang's career).

Ultimately, I may wind up loving this movie because it convinces me that I have to do so, even if it can't articulate why it deserves that privilege. It says that life is violent, cruel, and unfair, but that maybe it can be decent if you choose for it to be, even if it doesn't make coming to that conclusion easy.

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originally posted: 01/09/18 05:35:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 AFI Fest For more in the 2017 AFI Fest series, click here.

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