Hostiles Uses the Past to Look at the Present

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Hostiles, Scott Cooper’s new western, wants to be taken seriously. It wants to say important things, address essential themes, and say it all with unflinching intensity and beauty. To do that, especially in today’s market, takes not only talent, but courage and restraint. His success is mixed.

The film begins with a quote from D. H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted”. The film itself sets a course to both illustrate this observation and to melt both the heart of the protagonist, Capt. Joe Blocker(Christian Bale) and the hearts of the audience.

Like other Post-Modern westerns (specifically, Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves) Hostiles uses the genre conventions to self consciously address the larger themes of violence and racism. The title itself carries this load, indicating both hostility and the notion of the Other. A timely film, it would seem, in this current age. But when done well, as in the case of the two older films, westerns have always been timely.

It’s an old saw that America defined itself through western expansion …. and westerns are soundtracked to the hum of old saws …. that in the West, America found its identity story.

But does America want westerns? And is Hostiles the kind of Western they want? Director Scott Cooper earnestly believes it’s the movie they need.

So, like so many contemporary filmmakers, he goes to the source western, the post Viet Nam thinking man’s western, John Ford’s The Searchers, for imagery and inspiration. Beginning with the Comanche attack on the settlers, through the framing of Christian Bales’ prejudiced and hateful Captain Blocker in the cabin’s doorway, through his path to healing and redemption, the fingerprint of Ford’s iconic film is everywhere.

The difference though is both dramatic and telling. Ford suggests and Cooper shows, if not tells.

Despite using the landscape, always a western’s greatest assess, effectively, letting its beauty and scope dwarf and counterpoint the characters, and despite strong internally driven performances by everyone, the film only sometimes hits its emotional mark.

Too often the characters say what they should show. These are truths that should be felt, not articulated. At times he trusts in the power of his silences to speak…and he wisely and admirably avoids comic relief….but as the film draws to its end, there are confessions and self reflections that deflate the emotional power of the scene. And power is exactly what Cooper is striving for, and he should be duly respected in these cynical franchise days for the attempt. Pushing Max Richter’s soundtrack to the front of the mix, assigning its rich synthesized and orchestrated chords to lead, Cooper is declaring his intent to address America’s burden of violence and heal its self-inflicted wounds.

For all the violence, this is not an exploitation film, it is not a shoot’em up. Cooper is aiming for a deadly seriousness and gravity that the themes demand. Christian Bale’s performance certainly is all in. He is like a still and broiling focus of Cooper’s ambition to say something profound, both timely and timeless. His character takes the mythic arc from lost to found, from damned to redeemed, but in order to make it fit the narrative it feels like stages are missing.

It’s as if in this PTSD parable, Cooper wants his hero to heal so badly that he’ll take a shortcut here and there to help him along. He begins the film as a hardened and hateful government sanctioned killer, an Army officer who has done awful things in the line of duty. But when he encounters, the vulnerability of the traumatized settler woman (Rosamund Pike), he becomes a compassionate and thoughtful man. Add the vulnerability (to say nothing of the nobility) of the Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi), then the Captain truly begins to change, and change rapidly, too rapidly.

The last shot of The Searchers is John Wayne, framed by a cabin door, having saved his niece and overcome his prejudice, returning alone to the wilderness. The door closes.

The last shot of Hostiles nods to this iconic ending, but vicariously invites the audience, for America, to enter and be healed. It is such a noble gesture, I wish it had been more earned. As it is, I wish Captain Blocker well, but I wish the film hadn’t got there so fast and, despite the many wounds and corpses, so easily.

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