Saturday, May 26, 2018

Hostiles (Le Grisbi Productions, Waypoint Entertainment, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, Bloom, Lionsgate, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a quite good movie I’d been curious about ever since I saw the TV ads last year heralding its release — upon which it sank almost immediately at the box office. The film was called Hostiles and it was a Western set in 1892 in which Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), about to be mustered out of the U.S. Army following a long career as an Indian fighter, is assigned to escort a terminally ill Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who’s been incarcerated for seven years in an Army stockade for leading one of the Native American attempts to reconquer their ancestral lands. Now he’s been given what would now be called a compassionate release, and Blocker has been ordered to lead a commando team to take him north from New Mexico through Colorado to the Dakotas, where he is to be buried in the Valley of the Bears. Blocker is ill-suited to this assignment because he’s a racist who hates Indians with a passion — and we’re actually given the grounding for his hatred in an opening scene in which a band of Comanches raid a farm where the Quaid family — father Wesley (Scott Shepherd), mother Rosalee (Rosamond Pike) and their three kids, a baby and two daughters played by Ava and Sheila Cooper, real-life offspring of writer-director Scott Cooper — are holding forth. They slaughter Wesley and the kids and leave Rosalee with the Mother of All Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders: when the U.S. soldiers find her on the burned-out property she’s virtually catatonic, hanging on to her dead baby and insisting that she, not the soldiers in Blocker’s company, will dig the graves of her late family members. Hostiles is a slow-moving drama whose alternations of long, drawn-out scenes of human relationships and brief, sudden outbursts of violence reminded Charles and I of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate — as did the sheer beauty of the Western scenery against which the action takes place and Masanobu Takanynagi’s cinematography of it (though in the interiors Takanynagi falls back on modern-day past-is-brown clichés) — though it also seems like Cooper was evoking John Ford (the opening Indian attack on the peaceful settlers can’t help but remind one of The Searchers) and John Huston in the overall plot structure of a group of ill-assorted people on an obsessive quest.

Blocker is obliged to lead a group that’s been imposed upon him by the same authority that gave him a written order from President Benjamin Harrison to take Yellow Hawk to his ancestral homeland for burial — and threatened him with immediate court-martial, a dishonorable discharge and the loss of his Army pension if he refused. Along the way we lose the most interesting people in Blocker’s unit, African-American soldier Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors) — who turns in a quite effective solo performance of a religious song, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” — and the kid-too-young-to-die who naturally dies early, private Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Charlamet from the recent French Gay movie Call Me by Your Name) — but we get Peter Mullan as Lt. Col. Ross McGowan, whom Blocker is asked to transfer after he’s been arrested for massacring an entire Native American family. McGowan recalls serving under George Armstrong Custer and remembers fondly the days when U.S. soldiers could kill Indians with impunity — he gives off the rather sad air of a Stalinist bureaucrat facing a long sentence in the gulag because he didn’t realize the line had changed — and the journey of the ill-assorted groups of whites, Natives and whites growing more sympathetic to the Natives continues through Colorado until it actually gets to the Dakotas. Chief Yellow Hawk dies on the border of his tribe’s territory — I suspect the analogy in Cooper’s script to Moses dying on the border of the Promised Land was deliberate — and the party is confronted by a father and three sons, Cyrus (Scott Wilson), Silas (Brian Duffy), Ezekiel (Richard Bucher) and Virgil (Luce Raines) Lounde, who insist that the Bears country is their property. Acting like the modern-day Cliven Bundy and his psycho brood, insisting that even the President of the United States has no authority over them, they start a shoot-out in which just about everyone dies except Blocker and Rosalee Quaid, who had previously spent a night together on the road in a driving rainstorm but had not had sex.

The ending is a tearful Casablanca-ish leave-taking between the two at the railroad station in Butte, Montana where a train is supposed to take Rosalee out of the West to Chicago — only at the last minute, in an ending Cooper insisted on and Christian Bale fought against, he sneaks on the train and the hint is that he’ll join her and they’ll get together as a couple. Frankly, I think Bale was right: the parting he wanted would have been more moving, and more in keeping with the overall spirit of the film, than the reunion Cooper insisted on, but overall Hostiles is quite a movie, the sort of film they supposedly Don’t Make Anymore, an adult drama with genuine moral ambiguity — it’s neither the rah-rah settlers-good, Indians-bad Western John Ford would have made of this story nor the direct reversal (Indians-good, settlers-bad) of that set of clichés Kevin Costner made of Dances with Wolves — there are good Indians and bad Indians, just as there are good whites and bad whites, and the people in Hostiles act from mixed motives and seem less like the cardboard cut-outs of most Westerns and more like real people. Hostiles had an interesting genesis as a project: it was originally a script written by Donald E. Stewart, but after he failed to sell it he put it in storage in his garage and forgot about it. Then he died, and the script finally came to light again when his widow decided to move out of the house she’d lived in with him and came upon the script in their garage, decided to see if she could interest anyone in producing it, and got Scott Cooper on board — though the credits identify Cooper as both writer and director and merely state the film was based on “a manuscript” by Stewart. Whatever its genesis, Hostiles is a good enough movie I’d like to check out some of Cooper’s other films; it’s at once a moving reuse of some old Hollywood clichés and a fresh spin on them, and it certainly didn’t deserve its almost immediate failure at the box office!