Hostiles (2017): Slow Downbeat Western With a Message (Review)

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Hostiles is a film that screams out for Sam Elliot, or at the very least a Sam Elliot “type.” Christian Bale attempts to fill Elliot’s boots but loses something in the translation. This is not to say that Bale fails in his interpretation of a bitter and cold “Indian” fighter who must transport a Cheyenne chief (the brilliant Wes Studi) back to his hunting ground to die, but Captain Blocker was tailor made for Sam Elliot and one wishes devoutly that the older actor had been cast instead.

(That said, it turns out that the casting of Bale in this film led to his dropping out of the Travis McGee film “The Deep Blue Goodby” where he had been hideously miscast as the hero…)

Co-written and directed by Scott Cooper (Donald E. Stewart is also credited on the screenplay) Hostiles is Cooper’s fourth time at the helm as director. Like the storyline itself, Cooper does a decent job, although it is a tad convoluted. Overall this message film is slow and not a little downbeat. 

Performances tend to be pretty much spot on although each character is so taciturn and stoic that the sheer lack of dialogue leaves one wishing for more action. It has to be said that the casting of Oklahoma born Wes Studi was a stroke of genius. With his face showing years of strain mixed with a certain tired nobility, the actor does more with his character’s long silences than the rest of the cast put together.

Hostiles relies upon a certain amount of stereotypes while, at the same time, utilizing a “modern” approach to prairie life back at the time of the white man’s  steadfast, and cold blooded, fulfillment of their “manifest destiny.” Brit actress Rosamund Pike, is a wife and mother in the middle of teaching her two daughter’s the finer points of English at the start of the film. 

As Mrs. Quaid, Pike manages to have the most satisfactory character arc out of the entire cast. Bale’s journey ends almost too predictably, with his coming to an almost “Dances With Wolves” inner acceptance of his -previously hated enemy.

The start of the film, with it’s brutal murder of an entire family sans one, tells us the direction that Cooper intends to take from the first shot fired. Mr. Quaid is sawing wood when a small group of Comanche warriors ride into view. He immediately sounds the alarm, tells his small brood to hide and he runs out of his cabin and begins firing his carbine before the band of “hostiles” are within range.

It is the white man who shoots first, which results in the Comanche party retaliating with deadly and over-zealous force. (This short-lived battle, where Pike’s character loses everything she loves, shows the Native American proclivity for using the white man’s weapons, six shooters and rifles, along with their more traditional weapons.)

Hostiles moves at a sluggish pace. It appears that Cooper has used the 2014 Tommy Lee Jones/Hilary Swank western “The Homesman” as a template for the modern westerns. (Although it could be argued that Clint Eastwood started this slow trend with his 1992 award winning western Unforgiven – another film that also offers a bleak but bloody storyline.)

*Cooper does offer up a small homage to the Eastwood western by having one of his characters repeat William Money’s line of “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”)

Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona, the film looks stunning and while there are no real “panoramic” views, the bits of scenery on offer are breathtaking and makes one feel assured that this tale really is taking place in the “old west.”

Bale is satisfactory as the hard Indian wars campaigner, Studi deserves an award for his portrayal of a chief dying of cancer, Pike is spot on, and she is another member of the cast who should get a gong from the academy this year. Honorable mention goes to  Scott Wilson, aka Hershel from the AMC hit TWD, who has a splendid cameo as one nasty land owner. 

(Ben Foster has an excellent cameo as another campaigner who is set to be hanged when he is returned to civilization. Although his storyline is too predictable by far.)

Hostiles is a 4 star film that could have been a full 5 had it trimmed the overall running length from its mind numbing two hour and 13 minute run time. The film offers some surprising non visceral blood letting, a lot of f-bombs and not one bit of nudity. Cooper has even opted to leave out anything remotely resembling sex.

Cooper’s film has finished its festival circuit and will open with a limited release on 22 December this year. This one may be slow and plodding but it is worth a look, check it out on the big screen and see what you think. (In closing: Kudos to the filmmakers here for using what appears to be real Cheyenne language in the exchanges between Studi’s small band and Bale.)

Avatar (2009): The Best Space Western Since 1977’s Star Wars

Cover of "Avatar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Co...
Cover via Amazon

After a jokey morning with my daughter where she informed me that she and a mate had decided that I was battle-scarred enough to be Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, a viewpoint I laughingly agreed with, I started thinking about the film itself.

We went to see Avatar at the cinema. In all its 3D glory the film was stunning. The computer generated Na’vi looked real and the SFX looked brilliant. As the movie progressed I found myself becoming more protective of the native residents in the film. When the company destroys the symbol of their culture and a large number of Na’vi I suddenly realised that this was a western and the Na’vi were the cinematic representation of my Native American ancestors.

I was entranced.

I had not seen a science fiction film that so clearly showed its western roots since the original Star Wars. A film that also entranced  and excited me at the same time.

Luke Skywalker in his search for his father, his finding Obi-Wan Kenobe and learning the power and skills of a Jedi were just an updated fancy named scenario of a young man learning to be a gunfighter and leading the fight against a powerful enemy. It felt like a cross between The Magnificent Seven and Shane and any other western you could name.

Avatar was once described on Twitter by Kevin Sorbo as “Dances with Wolves in space.” I laughed and then immediately realised that he was right. The character of Jake Sully does study the Na’vi and becomes so enamoured of their way of life (not to mention the use of his legs again) that he actively defends them when Quaritch and his paid killers try to wipe them out.

James Cameron came up with the idea of the movie way back in 1994. He then sat back and waited for technology to catch up with his idea. I’m glad he did. The film in 3D was breath-taking if not a little headache inducing. The blu-ray was no less impressive and a lot easier on the eyes.

The plot is about a planetthat has vast supplies of a new element or mineral known as unobtanium (how’s that for a macguffin type name!) that humans are in desperate need of. A company (RDA) is trying to break down the resistance of the native people who call the planet home, the Na’vi. When all peaceful means fail the company sends their profession mercenary security force to annihilate the Na’vi.

On a side note, I wonder if anyone will ever invent a 3D system that doesn’t make you feel like a lifetime migraine suffer after watching it?

That Avatar is a western is beyond dispute. The planet with its rich deposits of unobtanium are just the Dakota’s and the black hills et al full of the gold that the white man so eagerly pursued. The resultant Indian wars that followed also mirror the Na’vi’s attempt to protect their home world.

Jake's avatar and Neytiri. One of the inspirat...
Jake’s avatar and Neytiri. One of the inspirations for the look of the Na’vi came from a dream that Cameron’s mother had told him about. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will openly admit that the cast (and crew) did such a good job in the making of this movie that I got swept away by the story. My brother actually got so swept away that when he watched the film in the cinema he got incredibly angry at the destruction of the tribe’s tree. He had to go into the lobby and cool down.

I was too busy being blown away by the performances and how the film looked. The 3D was so much better than any of the old-fashioned 3D that I almost felt  like I was in the film or at the very least surrounded by it. That combined with the incredibly talented cast made the movie an overwhelming experience.

*SPOILERS*

Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephan Lang, Zoe Saldana (who made me fall in love with the first ever blue graphically created woman in cinema) and of course  Michelle Rodriguez playing the usual hard-ass tough fighter she’s known for. High words of praise are also reserved to the cameo of Wes Studi, the one real link between Dances with Wolves and Avatar. He really sells the part of the clan chief and his death crushed me.

Cameron is working on a sequel that will be out in 2015. Assuming we all survive the end of the world in December, I’ll definitely be watching it. I want to see how the Na’vi have grown since their screen debut.

I can’t wait. Of course the question does have to be asked. When so few people can make a decent modern western why is that James Cameron can make one that is so spot on, but in space?

It will also be interesting to see what the plot is this time around. The original film did indeed parallel Dances with Wolves to a large degree. Let’s hope that the new adventures of the Na’vi don’t turn into a parallel version of F Troop.

Cover of "Dances with Wolves"
Cover of Dances with Wolves