Hostiles – 4.5 stars

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I caution you.  I’m a sucker for westerns, especially modern ones, because they are so few and far between. The last good one was Open Range, and that was 15 years ago (I don’t consider the brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to be a traditional western, but you have to go back to 2007 for that one, and the Coen Brothers True Grit from 2011 is a remake, so, it is also exempted).

I also concede that this film is a bit heavy on allegory and peace pipe mumbo-jumbo.  That said, I loved it.  Set in 1892, Christian Bale plays an embittered officer tasked with transporting an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana.  It is a laborious task made even more so to Bale because a decade earlier, Studi massacred Bale’s men, much as Bale massacred many an Indian.  During their trek, they come across a brutalized, in-shock Rosamund Pike, a frontier woman who lost everything to marauding Apache.  Along with a dozen other supporting characters, the group makes it way through the forbidding and harsh land, and God help me for writing these words, but in the doing, they come to an understanding about each other and their past deeds.  Written and directed by hit-or-miss Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), this is a sprawling, expertly shot picture with a heavy dose of melancholy and a serene, mystical side that evokes Terence Malick (in a good way).  Several scenes were deeply affecting, and the acting is committed and mature.

I couldn’t get enough and will gladly suffer the slings and arrows of my position, because you damned cynics ruin everything.

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9 comments
  1. Pincher Martin said:

    God, what an awful movie. Like Hallmark Movie awful. You should have graded it by the number of times the protagonists cried during the film – “Four-and-a-half crying jags for Hostiles.” Save the stars for films that don’t try so hard to get you reaching for the kleenex.

    There must be a reason for the rash of this treacly garbage. Are screenwriters taking too much Xanax and Prozac? Is their depression bleeding heavily into their work?

    Nearly every (white) character in the film suffers from “melancholy.” They are haunted by what they have done in their lives, of course. What else? Except for the young characters, who are haunted by what they *will* do in their lives. A young American soldier on the 19th-Century frontier comes across as squeamish to killing, even in self-defense.

    The Indians in the film lack all agency and speech, except to highlight the depression whites ought to feel. The usual Native American actors (Wes Studi, Adam Beach) are back. Their action scenes are mostly offscreen, including one in which they sneak off in the middle of the night, like Cheyenne Ninja warriors, to kill a hostile band of Comanche, all without most of their soldier guides even knowing they were gone.

    Nearly every scene is flawed. The movie begins by insulting our intelligence when a frontier man, protecting his home and family, runs out of said home and away from any possible cover so he can fire his rifle at six oncoming Comanches who were already within range, thereby giving his family no chance of surviving. I guess he thought he would run through their bullets or confuse them with his brainless strategy.

    The film then slaps us across the face several times over the next two hours demanding we cry at every absurd set-up.

    With stories like these, is it any wonder that most Americans have given up on Westerns. The only way to lure them back in to the cineplex to see the genre is to plant stories in the media about Leonardo DiCaprio getting raped by a a bear.

  2. Hard for me to rebut a lot of this. I disagree but I see how you can come to it honestly. I can only say that ultimately, I found the sum of the parts affecting, engaging and entertaining, and the cinematography was beautiful. A few mild objections. Not everyone had melancholia; only the one guy, Rory Cochrane. Bale was just angry and worn down and the rest of his contingent was loyal and true (the black guy, the West Pointer who screwed up with the prisoner, the Frenchy, the singer, all seemed normal, though the West Point revealed some discomfort with his first kill, which hardly seems anachronistic). Indeed, only Bale and the guy with melancholia are affected by their past transgressions and Bale is not so much haunted by them as reflective now that he has spent his last trying time with the feared Indian who he hated so much.

    Also, I did not see any of the squeamishness you saw. Granted it wasn’t 12 Horses or the Ghost Soldiers of Benghazi, but the men killed, killed with efficiency and even Cochrane had no beef with his recent killings – just the ones in the past (by the way – read The Earth is Weeping, which I just finished – a sweeping and fascinating history of the Indian wars post Civil War).

    I agree about the Indians and the lack of agency; mainly used for reflection (though the son did get in on the action in the final shootout). It was a weak part of the film.

    I think most scenes were assured. Even the frontier man’s tactics are defensible – if he holes up, they just burn him and his whole family alive – he took a shot to get them some time and you can quibble, but his distraction resulted in one survivor. Holing up or moving everyone to “cover” would not have.

  3. Pincher Martin said:

    Not everyone had melancholia; only the one guy, Rory Cochrane.

    Cochrane’s melancholy is the only one which is directly spoken of in the film. But the other characters’ depression is so obvious it need not be stated. Sad, forlorn looks crowd the entire movie. The Frenchman, who is mostly confused as to how he was assigned such a shit detail, before he meets a quick end. The black preacher/soldier who is injured and left behind at Fort Collins, but not before one crying jag, one eulogy, and many sad looks. The new lieutenant who talks sadly to Cochrane’s character about killing his first man and seems disgusted at the whole endeavor. (What did the Lieutenant expect as a soldier out on the frontier? UN peacekeeping detail?) And, of course, the woman played by Rosamund Pike who has just lost her entire family and has good reason to be depressed.

    Christian Bale is said to be angry (and indifferent to the fate of the Indians), and he has a couple of early scenes where that looks to be true. But he mostly looks sad in the film, not angry. Frankly, a little more anger from some of the depressed characters would’ve helped the film. As it was, the white characters in the film, once the story gets going, are either psychopaths (Ben Foster’s character, the furriers, and the four ranchers at the end) or depressed at the state of their lives.

    I think most scenes were assured. Even the frontier man’s tactics are defensible – if he holes up, they just burn him and his whole family alive – he took a shot to get them some time and you can quibble, but his distraction resulted in one survivor. Holing up or moving everyone to “cover” would not have.

    Yes, they will run him out. He will die eventually. That’s the most likely scenario when you have one man against six. Even cover most likely won’t help him in the end.

    But he had a better chance of getting lucky by staying behind some cover than he did running out in the open directly at six armed hostile men to catch bullets with his teeth. More importantly, his family had a better chance of escaping the longer he stayed alive to engage the attackers.

    You can get away with a few of these during any movie. Characters don’t always do commonsense things in the best movies. But when silly things happen again and again during a film, it ruins the story because it’s lazy storytelling that in this case puts emotionally jerry-rigged scenes ahead of a convincing narrative.

    Here’s another scene that bothers me and should bother you.

    You have three furriers who come across a white woman and two Indian squaws cleaning dishes at a creek. The women are kidnapped, raped, and eventually rescued at the furriers’ camp. This sequence is not explained with any cinematic detail.

    The white woman doesn’t tell the white furriers at first encounter that she’s with a group of soldiers escorting Indians to Montana? Or the furriers don’t care? That seems highly unlikely. The creek where the women were cleaning dishes was apparently so far from the camp that even with the early warning from the Indian child about the kidnapping, the soldiers and Cheyenne Indians can’t get to the women before the rapes? And then the furriers don’t leave anyone awake to guard the camp even though they have just kidnapped three women from U.S. soldiers? Again, I can’t buy it.

    Unlikelihood after unlikelihood piles up in this scene. Why would a sophisticated viewer buy it?

    Then to top it off, the rescue scene takes place off-camera. We don’t see it. We’re cheated out of action. We just see the rescuers entering a tent and shots ringing out. Then Bale’s character comes out of one of the tents to announce that one of the soldiers is dead along with the three furriers.

    Everything about that scene is lazy from a narrative sense, but the reason for its inclusion in the film is clear. It’s the filmmakers putting their thumbs on the emotional payoff. We in the audience are suppose to feel that the shared suffering of the Indians and their military escorts that comes from when the women are kidnapped and raped, and then the common purpose in the joint rescue to save them, will help bring Bale and the Indian Chief together.

    I don’t mind being emotionally manipulated, but I prefer the filmmakers not be so lazy about it. I don’t want to be constantly reminded that the wizard behind the curtain is a lazy, low-IQ dude who just wants to jerk me here and there by ladling up one emotionally-overwrought scene after another. Set those scenes up right. Spend some time making them work. You can kill that frontier family man in the beginning of the film without making him look like he deserves it, for example. You can have the kidnap/rape sequence without making the furriers seem like the dumbest men on the planet. You can kill off those Comanches without making it seem like the two Cheyenne who did it (including one old sick man) are Ninja warriors.

  4. Okay. One more go ’round and then I’ll leave you the last word.

    “Cochrane’s melancholy is the only one which is directly spoken of in the film. But the other characters’ depression is so obvious it need not be stated.”

    I simply didn’t see it. For the most part, it was grim business. It’s kind of like saying that the tank crew from Fury all suffered from depression, or all the characters in Dunkirk. My God man, this wasn’t F Troop!

    “But he had a better chance of getting lucky by staying behind some cover than he did running out in the open directly at six armed hostile men to catch bullets with his teeth. More importantly, his family had a better chance of escaping the longer he stayed alive to engage the attackers.”

    Yeah, I disagree. But I guess this is a tactical question that begs for an . . . alternative beginning?

    The furrier scene didn’t bother me. In fact, I surmised that the one woman who spoke English didn’t speak of the nearby help because she didn’t want to be murdered after being raped, and she wanted to keep their sole chance of staying alive a secret to their tormentors. And I didn’t feel cheated out of the action – I found it perfectly fine not to see the hand-to-hand on that scene (there’s plenty of action in the flick, but it ain’t Tombstone).

  5. Pincher Martin said:

    I apologize for filling your website with my comments. This will be my last one. But I once loved Westerns, and I’m sad – even depressed ! – to see the sorry state into which they have fallen.

    It’s kind of like saying that the tank crew from Fury all suffered from depression…

    But they did !

    It’s become commonplace in today’s movies to depict the male characters in historical films to be suffering from the same neuroses, and in the same proportions, that modern people suffer from.

    Hence we get these historical films filled with characters acting pretty much the same way we’d expect a bunch of modern metro men to act like if they were to suddenly find themselves in trying circumstances. They act irrationally, cowardly, or they retreat into a teary shell of their own melancholy. I find little of it believable. I don’t think that’s the way most people acted.

    For example, do I believe a single American frontier family man in the 19th-century would run out of his home, kamikaze-style, to engage half-a-dozen Comanches? No.

    Do I believe that men on the American frontier were inclined to depression because they had killed too many Natives when they weren’t killing each other? No.

    Do I believe that a 34-year-old Jesse James was depressed and suicidal, and therefore acquiesced in his own murder by Robert Ford? No.

    Do I believe that a long-serving tank crew in WW2, which had survived together since North Africa, would collectively decide to make one last martyr’s stand with the end of the war in sight? No.

    These type of sad-dog-face male characters are now cinematic cliches. They now populate films to the same degree that “strong, quiet men” once populated American movies in the nineteen-forties and -fifties.

    The Outlaw Josey Wales has some absurd scenes, but when the old Cherokee Lone Watie character begins to recite his people’s tribulations, Josey Wales’ response to it seems far more realistic as what a 19th-century man would’ve done than anything I saw in Hostiles.

    Eastwood’s character goes to sleep.

  6. No apologies necessary. And don’t feel limited to your last comment. I just didn’t want to belabor the points we were debating. But you have widened the debate.

    You are correct – the modern approach to war films emphasizes the depressive (or, I would say, the grim) and the players tend to be more reflective. I attribute that to the generational, the Vietnam effect, an emphasis on verisimilitude, and a desire for more maturity. The “sad-dog-face male characters” depicted are not depressed, but they are more affected by the brutality that surrounds them. As I didn’t see the soldiers in Hostiles the way you did, I don’t see the soldiers in the other films mentioned that way either. Agreed, the hearty and professionals of The Longest Day or The Green Berets have been discarded for the gritty realists down in the muck, but that doesn’t make the characters depressives. Moreover, a lot of really great pre-Vietnam westerns and war pics were similarly grim and loaded with characters undergoing real emotional torment, from The Ox Bow Incident to Battleground to Zulu.

    In Hostiles, you say the men act “irrationally, cowardly, or they retreat into a teary shell of their own melancholy,” but the one man suffering from melancholy was not a coward and eventually, acted pretty heroically. None of the other members of that unit acted as coward, irrationally, or retreated into a teary shell. I submit, sir, you are irrationally hostile to Hostiles!

    Now, as to your other point about believability, yes, I would not expect the tank crew to do that; from what I’ve read, I don’t think James was a depressive, but I appreciated the portrait; i just disagree about the kamikaze move (it saved his wife, dammit, and the hole-up would have killed them all!); and, yes, there was a fair amount of angst from soldiers writing home about what they were seeing in the Indian wars. Endemic, no, but not rare either. Also, for films, while there is an increased lack of believability, we don’t want to watch something pedestrian, but rather, something extraordinary, something new.

  7. Pincher Martin said:

    In Hostiles, you say the men act “irrationally, cowardly, or they retreat into a teary shell of their own melancholy,” but the one man suffering from melancholy was not a coward and eventually, acted pretty heroically.

    My comment was not just about Hostiles, but about most modern historical films, of which Hostiles is one example.

    But let’s see how Hostiles fits the categories I gave:

    Irrational: Frontier family man going kamikaze in beginning of film; three furriers kidnapping three women, including an Anglo woman, without assessing the potential threat to their own lives – apparently no questions for the white female captive, who was surely an oddity out on the frontier, and no guard duty for the furriers after raping those women.

    Cowardly: Unlike other films, there’s no outright cowardice in Hostiles, but a lot of side commentary from the everyday soldiers about how killing or corralling Indians is bad, which Bale’s character correctly reminds them early on in the film is part of their job.

    Retreating into Teary Shells of Depression: Nearly every soldier in the film cries or looks morose at one point or another. There are no happy soldiers in the movie unless they are psychopaths. Ben Foster’s character is the closest one who comes to cracking a toothy smile, and it’s frightening to behold.

    *****

    Look at a fictional movie which gets it right: No Country for Old Men. Its not really a historical film, but the story was set at least a couple of decades before the movie’s release date … so I guess it sorta counts.

    The sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones is in some ways sad, even if not depressed, but his sadness is never shown by making Jones break down into a teary mess. The sheriff’s face shows confusion and hesitancy, which he leavens with ironic humor – and that gets the point across to the audience. There’s no need to have him break down in tears or act like he wants to slit his own throat.

    The same thing is done with the Chigurh character. He acts irrational, but the movie makes clear from the beginning that his irrationality is part of who he is. It’s not introduced in scenes without context and story development. And so it feels perfect for the story.

    The same is true of the “cowardice” shown by Carson Wells and the gas station proprietor. Both men face Chigurh with obvious fear. Wells has good reason to be fearful because he knows what kind of man Chigurh is. The gas station proprietor does not. He’s merely confused by the situation he now finds himself in. But both men’s fear – and their less than noble reaction to that fear – is portrayed with realistic subtlety. There are no tears, no blubbering. Wells tries to bargain with Chigurh, then realizes the futility of it.

    No Country for Old Men is a completely made-up story with characters who do things which seem more absurd on the surface than anything we see in Hostiles, but it feels like the more realistic film.

  8. No Country is not a period piece, nor a “modern historical film”, nor is it in any other way a good exemplar. It is the embodiment of medium cool, a story about hard Texas men in a hard country fighting for their lives and a mess of cash while their world becomes more alien to them, with a superhuman villain thrown in. It is also one of the better films of the last 50 years. In another good though not great, similar film – Hell or High Water – tough Texas men do the same thing without much reflection or emotion. So what?

    Moreover, even taking your strange standard and applying it to Hostiles, again, every man was brave, only one was depressed and he said as much in the first scene (almost as if he’d said “My gout is bothering me”), melancholia in the 1890s is not some Aldaesque invention to force out the hankies in 2018, and the irrational acts you cite are picayune.

    You were on to something with the increasing sensitivity shown to characters in modern war and battle films, and I laid out a couple of reasons for the phenomenon. But I also harken back to the letters from Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War, contemporaneous offerings of the mindset of men in battle 25 years before Hostiles. You know, the “Martha, my love . . . ” letters.

    What a bunch of anachronistic, gooey, sentimental hokum!

  9. Pincher Martin said:

    In another good though not great, similar film – Hell or High Water – tough Texas men do the same thing without much reflection or emotion. So what?

    Hell or High Water is another good example, and I thank you for mentioning it. I guess the point of such a film, as is true of No Country for Old Men, is that modern Hollywood can still occasionally provide a more than serviceable film showing tough men who act sad and/or fearful in trying circumstances without bursting into tears.

    How many times did the men cry in Hostiles? Four? Bale twice. The black soldier once. And the suicidal soldier. Or was that just the rain? Metaphorical tears!

    (I disagree, however, that the two Texas brothers in Hell or High Water were not reflective. They were highly reflective, but in believable ways because their reflection was muted compared to the characters in most Hollywood flicks.)

    Moreover, even taking your strange standard and applying it to Hostiles, again, every man was brave, only one was depressed and he said as much in the first scene (almost as if he’d said “My gout is bothering me”), melancholia in the 1890s is not some Aldaesque invention to force out the hankies in 2018, and the irrational acts you cite are picayune.

    Melancholy certainly existed. Lots of 18th and 19th century authors wrote about it. But literary men are not volunteer soldiers on the American frontier, and my problem with the characterizations in Hostiles is the degree and preponderance of the morose feelings. No happy soldiers on the frontier, I guess.

    But I also harken back to the letters from Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War, contemporaneous offerings of the mindset of men in battle 25 years before Hostiles. You know, the “Martha, my love . . . ” letters.

    Yes, but the Civil War – like WW1 for Europeans and WW2 for just about every major participant – was a war in which the soldiers were broadly reflective of entire classes of American men who in normal circumstances would never wear a military uniform.

    That’s quite a bit different from the 1890s when fewer than 30,000 men, and around 2,000 officers, were in the entire U.S. Army.

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