Monday, January 8, 2018

Hostiles


Alternate Title:  A Million Ways to Die in the West
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  A veteran of the Indian Wars is assigned to escort a dying Indian chief back to his tribal homelands in Montana.



Things Havoc liked:  I love Westerns. I love the iconography, the setting, the themes, the action, everything about Westerns. Not to say that there aren't incomprehensibly awful movies made with that setting, but in January, when there's nothing to see but a bunch of dump-off films that no studio has faith in, and a screaming horde of oscar-bait movies that all came out on New Year's Eve, one kind of has to take movies by genre and concept more than by anything else, and a Western suited me just fine. The entire genre still lives in the shadow of the titans of the early 90s, especially Unforgiven and Tombstone, both masterpieces of the genre (the former won the Best Picture award that year), which stamped their form indelibly upon the genre and all films within it thereafter. At the time, many critics thought that Unforgiven in particular had closed the books on all there was to be said for the Western, but Hollywood doesn't work that way, and we've had a number of Westerns since then, some good (True Grit), some bad (Cowboys and Aliens), some modern (Hell or High Water) or otherwise setting-crossing (Serenity), but all ineffably Westerns, and most, on the whole, a credit to their forebears. The genre may not have the prominence that it once had back in the 50s or 60s, when the Western was regarded as one of the surest moneymaking prospects in Hollywood, but Westerns still get made, and the good ones, at least still try to say something about the world when they are. So it was that, still in recovery from the flu and looking for something with which to start the calendar year of 2018 (even if 2017's film calendar still has a film or two to run), I spotted a Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike vehicle promising six-shooters and mustaches and long tracking shots across desolate plains, and settled in on a Friday night to watch something good.


Things Havoc disliked:That is not what happened.

2017 has been a banner year for film, without question, and one of the many consequences of its stellar slate of films has been that we haven't seen a lot of films like this one in a while, but they are still out there, waiting to strike as soon as your guard is down. Hostiles is just such a hidden trap, a movie that looks very good from the trailers, cast, and concept level, but completely implodes once it gets around to actually trying to tell its story. It is not a good film in general, nor a good western in specific. In fact, it downright sucks, in a way that we have not seen in quite some time. So let's analyze for a moment who could possibly be the one responsible for this dreadful state of -

... what's that? It's directed by Scott Cooper? Oh... well there we have it then.

Yes, Scott Cooper, a man who never met a screenplay he did not feel needed to be more on-the-nose, more anvilicious, more filled with trepidatious pauses and forlorn looks at the camera, a director whose entire filmography is full of sound and fury and signifies very very little. I know that many people liked Crazy Heart, the 2009 Jeff Bridges vehicle, and I even know some who liked Out of the Furnace, but I remember him from 2015's Black Mass, a movie in which Johnny Depp played a vampire and called himself Whitey Bulger, and Cooper did everything he could to disguise whatever else the film might have been about, beyond a handful of disconnected events that may or may not have had anything to do with Whitey Bulger. I didn't hate Black Mass, but it was not a good movie, and Hostiles, for all the differences in tone and theme and genre, is honestly even more of the same, a plodding, placid film directly from the Terrence Mallick school of filmmaking. But where Mallick is at least an interesting visual filmmaker, Cooper has simply learned that some directors place long, empty spaces between every line that every actor intones, but has not learned why. The result is a movie that is stuck in the tonal sensibilities of the worst parts of recent years, but the genre sensibilities of the early 1990s. Not a good combination.

The year is 1898, and life is hard in the West. Commanches raid farmsteads in New Mexico, while reservation jumpers are hunted down by the US Army with extreme prejudice. Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a veteran US Army Captain, is assigned a mission by his commanding officer (Stephen Lang, in a rare moment of life within the otherwise dead film) to escort a dying Indian chief and his family (Wes Studi) back to their homelands in Montana, so that he can die in peace. Why is this mission so vital that the President of the United States issues a personal and direct order that it be accomplished? I have no idea, for the film is not interested in that question. It is interested instead in the fact that Captain Blocker, who seemingly fought in every single war between the US Army and an Indian tribe in the thirty years prior to this film, is a very bad man, a murderer of men, women, and children, and consumed by all-powerful hate for the Natives he has spent a lifetime battling. Thus far, we are on good thematic ground, with the hero revealed as a broken-down killer, much like in this film's most obvious ancestor, Unforgiven itself, which this movie is so endebted to that it steals quite a few major lines from the aforementioned Clint Eastwood piece, wholesale. Still, this would all serve well enough were the rest of the film, say, a character study of this broken and hate-ravaged soldier, or perhaps a slow exploration of the means by which he discovers a route to becoming something else. Unfortunately, the movie is neither of these things, preferring instead to be about nothing at all besides its own portentous, over-weighty dialogue, and its cynical marginalization of the very people it purports to be exposing the cruelties towards.

What do I mean? Well consider the setup above. A man who hates Natives is now forced to escort a Native chief halfway across the country through territories filled with hostile bandits and Commanche raiders. And yet of all the many and varied paths that the film could potentially take from here, the film chooses none of them, preferring instead to simply have Bale sit stone-facedly in the grass or in his saddle and stare off across the plains as though reviewing internally the emptiness of his life. I don't mean the life of the character, I mean the emptiness of Bale's life having been forced to make this movie. Bale spends the entire film in an unplaceable monotone that sounds like a Ron Swanson impression, staring into space blankly as the various other characters he meets recite ridiculously overwrought lines at him about how dark his soul is or how dark their own souls are or how dark everyone's soul has become or how much they wish they understood the meaning of the darkness that lies within their souls or how they wish their souls were not so dark but unfortunately they are, or or or or or. I get the desire to tell a revisionist Western (though the notion is not as revolutionary as Cooper thinks it is), but you actually do have to tell the Western, not just gesture at the self-evident notion that everyone who dared set foot in The West was a soul-destroyed PTSD-riddled hollow wreck of a person, whispering dialogue concerning the darkness that was their souls at ten second intervals before riding over the next ridge to do it all over again. The entire film is comprised of nothing but dead-eyed stares and monotone line delivery, until we as the audience start to wonder if the problem isn't something more medical than "the sickness of man". At least when The Homesman acted like this, it had the excuse of portraying characters that had literally gone insane.

But heavy-handed as this sort of thing is, I might have forgiven it (might) if the movie had had the balls to actually follow through with the premise that the story of the West is truly the story of the Natives, and that the disconnection the other characters feel has to do with the horrors they have perpetrated on such people. Unfortunately, for all its pretensions at telling a revisionist story of modern understandings of The West, the movie's interest in its Native characters, which as mentioned before include Wes Studi, the greatest Native American actor of all time (go watch Geronimo or Last of the Mohicans if you disagree with that), is practically non-existent. In addition to Studi's Chief Yellow Hawk, there is his son, Black Hawk, his daughter, his daughter-in-law, and grandson, and not a single one of these characters get a goddamn thing to do throughout the entire movie but sit in a circle and look enigmatically upon everyone else, without saying a word, and occasionally demurely giving gifts to the white characters and radiating angelicness. Yellow Hawk himself doesn't get much more to do. He and Blocker are established as being old enemies, both bad men who did bad things during the Indian Wars to one another's people, who have hated one another for years without halt. Yet Studi doesn't get more than a handful of lines across the entire movie, all of which are calm, dispassionate requests for Captain Blocker to listen to his wisdom in terms of how to deal with other Indian tribes, how to deal with his guilt, or (get this) thanks to the good Captain for having the common decency to treat him... better? It's not quite as obsequious as it sounds, but it's not far off, and this is the only Native character in the film with what amounts to a real part! Yellow Hawk and Blocker share barely a handful of scenes together, and then suddenly transform into best friends, with Blocker telling Yellow Hawk in his own language that he carries a piece of him in his heart. There is a way that this sort of admission between two old enemies could work, hell there is a way where it could be profoundly moving. But it would have to be in a movie that was about the relationship between these men, while this film is not interested in being about anyone, least of all the Natives, who are treated here like the Indian equivelant of Spike Lee's famous Magical Negro archetype, props for the movie to trigger the spiritual renewal of a sinful white character who is now redeemed. At least the majority of the Magical Negro movies out there (Legend of Bagger Vance for instance) actually involve the black character getting to do something, be it give wizened speeches or demonstrate his superior ways. This movie seems to posit that the mere presence of Native Americans will render you more spiritual and absolve you of your sins, like the symbols of some holy faith, bereft of the need to actually do anything.


Final thoughts:   I said before that I love Westerns, even though this sort of failing is not unheard of in the majority of them. Hell, I like Dances with Wolves, which a number of people have castigated for being nothing but another White Savior film. Maybe that's fair and maybe it isn't, but goddammit, in Dances with Wolves the Natives got to be real characters, with speaking parts and character arcs and everything, not mute props dragged along so that the "real" characters could react to their presence and be cleansed of their guilt. And when you combine all this with the fact that none of the characters actually do anything to cleanse said guilt beyond staring into space and occasionally getting in gunfights with the most thinly-characterized "bad people" imaginable, well let's just say that a film which starts to give me Under the Skin flashbacks is not precisely putting its best foot forward.

Westerns have come a long way in the last three decades, not always to great effect, but frequently so. Go watch Unforgiven or Tombstone, or Geronimo, or for that matter Wind River from earlier this year, as all of those movies are good movies first and foremost, with characters who take action and who deal with one another as people might do. Not all of them involve Native Americans, but the ones that do actually involve them, they don't play-act at involving them and then pretend that they somehow have something to say that the aforementioned movies did not say. Above all though, go watch movies that are actually about something, because Hostiles is about nothing besides its director's ego, and the highly out-of-date sensibility that the only thing you have to do to increase representation of Native Americans in movies is to physically include them within the frame occasionally.

Final Score:  3.5/10


Next Time:  We continue our trek through the Oscar Bait of 2017.  What gems shall we find therein?

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