Westerns are making a comeback
REVIEW — There seems to be a resurgence of good Westerns lately, supported by the fresh release, “Hostiles.” After recent triumphs like “Wind River,” “Hell or High Water,” “The Hateful Eight” and “The Revenant,” I might want to re-watch some of the classics, ,from John Ford’s “The Searchers” to any selection out of Sergio Leone’s oeuvre. The modern moviegoer wants more tales of frontier justice, taking place in the fabled territory west of the Mississippi.
“Hostiles” is a film about prejudice and honor. The film opens in the late 1890s with the razing and mass murder of a suburban household. All but the mother, Rosalee (Rosamund Pike), are killed by passing Comanche warriors who wish to steal Americans’ horses for themselves. The film then cuts to Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a high-ranking soldier who knows the land the best and hates Native Americans the most. When Blocker is coerced into escorting a prisoner-of-war to his tribe’s home territory, he encounters and soothes Rosalee amidst her scorched home and dead family. Along the way, Blocker and the chief (Wes Studi) work together to ward off the Comanche warriors, violent Americans, and their dark, warring pasts.
There is no question that this film is acted flawlessly. Short-lived characters are arguably well-developed and important to Bale’s character, making their deaths all the more moving. The swiftness and unpredictability of death made it a potent obstacle throughout the journey. Bale and Pike are subtle and held back. They portray grief, trauma and anger with intermittent, silent bursts of violence. Studi, though not very prominent even as the third lead, was appropriately stoic — adapting and interacting to his violent environment with Americans while also assuring the safety of his accompanying family.
“Hostiles” had the makings of a spectacular film, but there were instrumental technical issues that were handled as well as other aspects of the movie. The director, Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”), had a clear, well-executed vision. His writing, however, was not on par with his directing. There was a myriad of fantastically written scenes, but there was some unconvincing dialogue that plagued the first and part of the second act. There was an abundance of exposition explaining the violent actions of Bale’s and Studi’s characters. As the old adage goes: “show, don’t tell.” One monologue in particular was easily four minutes long. It was especially hard to maintain your focus when the actor uses a heavy accent as well. The two did not go well together, though the writing drastically improved as time passed.
There were also some editing choices that were redundant and tiring. There were many cuts to characters riding their horses over a beautifully picturesque landscape. The cinematography was exceptional, despite some poorly-lit evening and night sequences. The shootouts looked cinematic, but were edited sloppily. The cuts were rushed and dizzying. It was odd to watch a movie called “Hostiles” with poorly executed moments of on-screen hostility.
Max Richter, the composer of the film’s soundtrack, is slowly rising on my list for favorite film composer of all time. Hans Zimmer will never be eclipsed and Carter Burwell has just composed soundtracks for too many of my favorite films for me to ignore him (“Three Billboards,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “In Bruges,” “Fargo,” anything from the Coen brothers). Richter wrote one of the most beautiful themes and overall soundtracks of the year, raising my hopes that he gets an Oscar nod today. This music forewarns the impending doom of Rosalee’s family, lets you breathe in moments of harmony, excites you in shootouts despite poor execution, and swells during the poignant end.
Barring the editing and flawed writing, this film had great potential in being one of the best movies of the year. Much like “Phantom Thread” or “Molly’s Game,” I don’t think “Hostiles” will get much attention for the awards circuit, but I do recommend you all see it. While it is a very strong B, Cooper’s missed opportunities could have made something at an A- level, at minimum.