Westerns have been quite the resilient genre. Despite being period pieces at heart and for a period that can likely count the people still alive during that era on one hand, they reliably keep coming out. They’ve been declared dead seemingly every year for decades and yet we keep getting new ones. These new Westerns have all purported to offer revisionist takes on the genre, but the Revisionist Western is so old that it too has been getting revisionist takes. I can’t even tell you what level of revisionism we are operating on anymore, but at this point, I think it is safe to call it just a Western, as the traditional type had basically died even before John Wayne did.
The latest attempt at one comes to us from the director of Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, and Black Mass, Scott Cooper. Cooper also writes the film (as he did with those first two films), and as has become de rigueur for the genre, it is set towards the end of the era. Not quite everyone being pushed out by new technology, but the kind where you can easily line up a metaphor about your tired characters who have experienced so much violence and are coming to an end of the road. The film doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before and the characters are pretty thinly sketched, but it does execute it all pretty well.
I called Call Me by Your Name out for its glacial pace and while I can hardly say Hostiles is any faster, it is a much better example of what I like to see out of a slow paced film. The scenes all feel necessary at developing the characters and/or the plot and most importantly, they are all compelling. For the most part, it is a quiet film which lets the muted expressions and actions speak for the characters. I say for the most part because there are way too many scenes of “spotlight minor character and let him give his opinions right before shooting him” that can be a bit too on the nose. Still, it is a beautiful looking film (shot by The Grey‘s Masanobu Takayanagi) with lots of wide shots and minimal cuts.
The basic plot tells of a retiring Army Captain (played by Christian Bale) who must accept ONE LAST MISSION to return a formerly imprisoned Native American chief (played by Wes Studi) to his reservation before he dies. Besides being a The New World reunion (Bale, Studi, and Q’orianka Kilcher), the film also stars Rosamund Pike and a heavily bearded Rory Cochrane, with support by a pair of actors who just turned in great roles in end of the year awards contenders in Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalamet. They all do a fine job (including Ben Foster who I think is just automatically attached to such films) with Bale especially doing great work as the Native hating and brutal Captain.
If you’re guessing that the film will feature two mistrusting people of two people of different races, you’d be completely wrong. While we are informed that Chief Yellow Hawk was a brutal man, it’s more of an informed attribute as on screen he is treated as a good man through and through. I get why the film (which unsubtly, if deservedly blames America for this and that the American troops are just as brutal as any Native) doesn’t try to craft a more flawed character, but it leaves all the dramatic heft on the white characters and often leaves the Native characters as mere props in their story. As we often do in these type of films, the film instead just evens things out by introducing a savage and pure evil Native tribe.
Rereading that last paragraph, it feels strange to me because the actual watching of the film left me satisfied even if the nitpicks eat away at the very things I enjoyed about the film. It’s predictable, but never in a way that it got in the way of my enjoyment and always depicting a natural progression. The characters can be thin, but they have a way of making you care about each and every one of them. It can be brutal (not in the way or to the extent Bone Tomahawk is brutal), but that brutality feels natural and indicative of the world they live in. It’s never exploitative, the violence is far from graphic, and it informs the actions of the characters. It lends credence to Bale’s (and others in remembrance of their experiences) descriptions of what he’s lived through and you have an idea of how he became the coldly vicious person he is today. He also stands out because he is so clearly human and capable of compassion and knowing how to behave in every situation. That last bit is a welcome change from all the characters which are directly descended from Wayne’s role in The Searchers.
It’s far from a perfect film and the clichés keep it from being The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film it really seems to want to be, but this is the kind of film that is very much my thing. This kind of film has been done before and better, but you can certainly do worse if you are looking for a quiet and pretty Western that takes its time.
It should also be noted this is my 200th thread on this site. So yay me I guess?