Hostiles

Rumors of its demise, and so on. Every so often one hears of the passing of the western, the obituary of the genre being wheeled out and presented newly polished, typically, in equal parts respectful, regretful and dismissive. The gist tends to run along the lines that it once rose to prominence, becoming the quintessence of Americana, the imagery evoking the culture of a continent in the eyes of the world. And then it, just as it had achieved true greatness, it began its slow decline, growing tired and introspective to the point of unhealthiness, and finally feeling less relevant as its origins fade further into the past. Yet the western is arguably an integral part of cinema (not just an element of its history) and every time a wake is announced it appears somewhat premature. At the risk of mawkishness, the western constitutes the soul of Hollywood filmmaking, underpinning it and forever watching over it. The point of all this is that as frequently as the genre is lamented, just as frequently does it hint at a recovery. In truth, there have been many false dawns, and perhaps the expectations are either misplaced or too high. The western will never again dominate cinema, but a film like Hostiles (2017) suggests, to me anyway, that there are still stories to be told within the framework of the genre that have artistic merit.

The opening is harsh, make no mistake about that. It’s not so much that the violence is graphic (although there is a brief shot that could be described as such) as the fact it has a stark brutality. There are some moments in westerns that are remembered for this kind of frank depiction of frontier ruthlessness: think of Jack Palance’s shooting of Elisha Cook Jr in Shane or Henry Fonda wiping out a family in Once Upon a Time in the West. What Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) experiences here is on a par with those moments, an emotional gut punch that, quite naturally, leaves her slightly unbalanced for a time and colors her attitude and actions as she journeys through the film. And the whole piece is a journey, literal and metaphorical, following the progress of Captain Joe Blocker, a soldier of fearsome reputation and on the eve of his retirement, as he escorts an old enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his spiritual home in Montana. Yellow Hawk is a dying man and his request to end his days in this fashion has been granted by the government. Blocker wants no part of this detail but is given no option and therefore sets out consumed with resentment and naked hatred, something not improved by the discovery of Mrs Quaid and her plight. To say more would, I feel, diminish the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, so I’ll confine myself to pointing out that this trek undertaken by a collection of damaged and broken souls is involving from start to finish. It is intense and violent at times but not in any gratuitous or nihilistic way, while the growth and emotional development of the characters is ultimately fulfilling and rewarding.

For me, the great appeal of the western is its timelessness and versatility, the ability to tell almost any story in an absorbing and satisfying way. The western always had a way of holding up a lens to the world around us, of taking its setting and trappings and allowing the viewer to examine the world around us through the prism of the past, by focusing on our humanity and reminding us that the challenges we face today have parallels in our past and may well arise again in our future. This is what I see as the central theme of Hostiles: the settling with the past. The film is essentially about characters coming to an arrangement with their own histories and subsequently of growing into an accommodation with themselves. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of the film where Yellow Hawk and Blocker sit side by side and talk. Blocker tells his one time adversary that when he dies a piece of him will also go with the old chief. I think that’s what the message here comes down to, that confronting our past is not about rejecting it out of hand, but rather acknowledging that some aspects have to be left behind while others are retained and assimilated in order to move forward.

Until now, I’d not seen anything by Scott Cooper but his is a name I’ll be looking out for in future – he appears to have a genuine affinity for the genre and I hope he returns to it at some stage. I always feel westerns are at their best visually when they are shot outside on location and that’s the case here with some wonderful views of the (mainly) Arizona and New Mexico landscape. The only criticism I’d make of the film is the pace is allowed to drop on occasion and I feel the whole sub-plot with Ben Foster’s character is largely superfluous – some judicious cutting/rewriting here and there could have tightened the whole production up. Structurally, thematically and spiritually this movie harks back to the classic era, but scripts then would have been much more streamlined and pared down.

Christian Bale was impressive in his role as the battle-scarred captain, confident and efficient on the outside when faced with the various dangers and threats encountered along the way yet still entirely human as opposed to superhuman in more intimate situations. Frankly, his character arc is hugely satisfying and the end of the film simply feels fitting. What’s more, Bale comes across as wholly convincing as a westerner, a quality which is not so common among leading men these days. Wes Studi is no stranger to westerns of course and he gives another typically authentic performance that’s marvelously quiet. I also thought Rosamund Pike did fine work with just the right kind of vaguely off-center detachment to suit her part. It was nice too to see Stephen Lang, although he’s really only in the movie briefly.

So, Hostiles generally worked for me, and it’s been a good few years now since I came away from a cinema with that feeling about a western. I’d like to think  it might perform well enough to keep the genre from drifting off towards the sidelines immediately. I don’t think it’s a game changer but it’s a mature piece with a solid emotional core and well worth the time of anyone who has an interest in quality western movies.

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29 thoughts on “Hostiles

  1. You mentioned the versatility of the western, and that is something I appreciate about them. Whether it is relaxing with Hoppy or Roy just because I need to relax with Hoppy and Roy, or appreciating nuances in The Searchers or the allegory of Silver Lode. Film styles, historical perspectives, contemporary politics – all have had their place in a western, and they will be forever fascinating to me. It seems as if Hostiles will be added to that list.

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    • That’s the secret of the western, I think, its ability to connect with a range of people on different levels. I hope you get to see this, and of course that you like it too. I reckon it deserves some positive word of mouth publicity.

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    • Well yes, that’s right. This movie is very much in the classic, traditional camp in that it takes its time to tell the story through the characters and their interactions – it has some tough action but it’s contextualized and has the maturity to present the consequences, not least on those who partake in violence.

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  2. I’ve got to give credit to our friend, John Knight, for prompting me to go along to see “HOSTILES” at the cinema as his is an opinion I can trust.
    I’m really glad you decided to see the film and review it, Colin. I commented briefly on it somewhere back in one of the blogsites in December and made the same point as you that the pace faltered a little in places but that otherwise it was solid.

    Many, maybe even most, westerns of recent decades (with one or two exceptions) I would describe as westerns for folks who don’t like westerns generally. This film though I feel is a western for folks who DO like westerns. Can’t say fairer than that.

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    • I’d agree with all of that, Jerry, and I too want to thank John for flagging up the positives of the movie a while back.

      Yes, describing it as western for people who like westerns is both neat and apposite. It’s traditional without being old-fashioned and has something worthwhile to say.

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  3. It’s been 25 years since I was really satisfied with a Western–that’s a long time (UNFORGIVEN and GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND).. And I’ve had some really bad experiences in there (specifically with the 3:10 TO YUMA remake and THE HATEFUL EIGHT).

    Despite my skepticism, I have intended to see this, and I know good things have been said about it by genre aficionados, but somehow, given the press of others things, I just haven’t made it yet. So hopefully, I will get to it while it is still in theaters.

    Some of what you wrote at the beginning of this resonated a lot with me. I’ll just add this–I don’t despair of a good Western coming along sometime again, and wouldn’t even say there couldn’t be a great one. But does there need to be? The genre was so rich and ran so deep in the classical years that there doesn’t seem to really be anything to add that could be done better than it was in those movies. And we can spend the rest of our lives going back to them and getting more from them.

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    • Blake, I hope you do get to see it, and preferably theatrically as it is very well photographed and benefits a lot from being projected big. I think you should find something in it to relate to – there’s harshness, and maybe a few moments feel a touch forced, but I think the payoff at the end is really worthwhile.

      Do we need more satisfying westerns being made? No, I don’t suppose we do and, like yourself, I can live with the wealth of material already available. Still, I do like to see the genre kept alive in the sense that people may continue to be turned on to it and, with that in mind, it never hurts if there’s something of quality playing in the cinema. It’s nice to think there are still filmmakers out there with a feel for the genre.

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    • Blake, I agree with you about 3 10 to Yuma and The Hateful Eight. The first one obviously made to appeal to computer game afficianodos and the second a bizarre, sickening celebration of gratuitous violence.

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    • That’s very kind of you. I have a great fondness for the western and I suppose that shows in my writing but I’m also of the opinion that if one is to write on any genre and spend any amount of time doing so, then it’s only fair to accord it respect.

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    • Thanks, Steve. The movie just opened here this weekend and it’s still to be released in a number of other European countries throughout the spring – Germany doesn’t get it till the end of May as far as I can see – so I’m sure it will show up in Australia at some point.

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    • Well worth keeping an eye out for in whatever form is most convenient/available. Bale is very good in his part, and it’s a treat to see how far he has traveled on a personal level by the end, and the subtlety with which he conveys his arrival at his emotional destination.

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  4. I have yet to see this. It’s a matter of convincing my wife to go – so I may have to watch it alone.
    Westerns will never die – though they are obviously no longer in their heyday. Reason being that nearly every Actor (and Director) wants to do a Western sometime in their career.
    Quality varies. Some are awful. Some are B. But some are great movie making. And some are superb (Unforgiven) – and even win Oscars.
    There are still many great Western tales to tell and some fine Writers around.
    Good review Colin. I look forward to the movie.

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    • Yes, the western will always be around; as I said, it’s an ingrained part of the culture of moviemaking, and maybe of culture itself. However, some efforts in the last number of years have had big names attached but left a lot to be desired. I think you’ll like this though.

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  5. Wonderful review, Colin. I initially wanted to see this, a similar appreciation for the western we share, as you know. But my enthusiasm waned for some reason and I decided to wait for home release. Probably because of Bale, too, certainly not for Wes Studi, for he remains a favorite and doesn’t see enough work, in my opinion. Thinking I’ve watch Christian in a lot of things that I’m leaning toward his over-exposure. However, now, you’ve got me again intrigued by your writing and thoughts of this film. Thank you for this.

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    • Thanks, Michael. It’s hard to know what to catch during theatrical runs and what can be better left till later. And if you’ve been seeing a lot of given star, then that can be a big influence. Personally, I haven’t seen Bale in all that much lately so it wasn’t an issue for me. I think you’ll find something to like in this film whenever you get to it.

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  6. In today’s movie world it stands alone and leaves the viewer with many images and a good story to easily recall when necessary and/or desired. Those components alone supported by wonderful performances are worth more than one viewing. I almost stood and cheered at the closing scene because it was so right. I’m lookin forward to others of the new breed to find the challenges of the western genre right up their alley and launch another “stand alone” we can lick our chops on.

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  7. Hi Colin…hope you’re doing well…and good of you to draw attention to this recent Western. I have actually incorporated it into the Western genre college course I teach (as a film review choice for my students).

    I agree with your comment about the pacing dropping a bit at times, and that the time with Ben Foster’s character could have condensed (or perhaps taken in a different plot direction), but overall, I think Bale’s performance was outstanding. The look on his face at the very end of the film, when his group is met by the antagonistic ranchers, says so much. In my interpretation, he so ably portrays a weary frustration at running into the blatant, systemic racism at this point (racism that he himself overcame on his journey).

    For sure, the film is graphically violent at times but I don’t feel it was gratuitous (a la Tarantino). Thanks for sharing your write-up, Colin.

    Cheers,
    Chad
    https://railswestern.com/

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    • Hello Chad, delighted to hear from you. Yes, despite a few quibbles regarding pacing and that touch of mid-section slackness, the movie is a remarkably solid piece. I say remarkably, because it generally charts a steady course and has a consistency of plot and thematic development that isn’t always present, or so defined, in some other recent western revivals. As it stands, I think we got a very good western, but some tightening and cutting would have raised it to a much higher level.
      And yes, Bale’s performance is very fine indeed.

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