*. Hostiles lost me in the first five minutes. It begins with a band of Indians attacking an isolated homestead. This did not strike me as a wise move. There are only six of them and they charge their horses across a large open field in broad daylight, firing pistols and arrows. The homesteader has at least one repeating rifle in his bunker-like log cabin. This gives him a big advantage. If he just stands by a window he could probably pick off the attacking Comanche with ease. Maybe his wife (Rosamund Pike) could get a gun and help. Frontier women were tough, and as we find out later she knows how to shoot.
*. That’s not what happens. Instead Mr. Homesteader runs out of the house and charges the Indians. He is immediately cut down, as are his children (his wife, Rosamund Pike, survives). What, I was left to wonder, was I watching?
*. Nothing good. And it’s nothing good that goes on for another two-plus hours. Hostiles is an intense, dramatic Western. I’ll now break down what this means.
*. (1) It moves very slowly. The characters move slowly. Then they stop, get down on their haunches, and the camera looks at them. During the “making of” featurette included with the DVD Pike mentions how writer-director Scott Cooper “cast actors with so much depth that you can just look into these faces for days and communicate silently. And it’s so exciting.” Well, at least it feels like days we spend looking into Christian Bale’s mournful eyes. And to be fair, he does have a great movie face. But I wouldn’t call looking at it here exciting.
*. (2) The script is stiff, full of stony utterances that have to be delivered in such a way as to give them their full weight. Christian Bale, as per usual, reads his with whispered intensity. People say things like “As you well know, death rides on every hand.” “Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I’m weak.” “Don’t look back, my friend. Go in a good way. A part of me dies with you.”
*. (3) It’s not just the way they say their lines. The rest of the performances are just as sclerotic. Nobody smiles. Nobody is relaxed. Pike invites Bale to sleep with her in her tent but he looks like he’d be more comfortable in the cold and rain outside.
*. (4) There’s a morose score, that in places sounds to me like “Silent Night.” As you know, I watch movies with the subtitles on. The subtitles refer to this as “somber music.”
*. (5) The action takes place against an epically beautiful natural landscape. As I said in my notes on The Revenant, “great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful.” Nice scenery is often confused with brilliant photography. It actually owes more to the location scouts than the cinematographer. You can’t make national parks with snowy mountains in the distance look bad. Though apparently you can get clouds to disappear pretty quickly. Observe two shots in the same location that are only separated by a couple of minutes, at most, of real time.
*. (6) There is an important Political Message. Here’s the plot: Indian-killer Bale has to escort a dying Indian chief to his home lands. He is reluctant to the point of insubordination and facing a court martial, but apparently he is the only one capable of carrying out this mission. He picks up Indian-attack survivor Pike along the way. Somehow — are you ready for this? — they have to overcome their hate and prejudice and learn to work together and trust one another if they are to survive. The white men will apologize for stealing the Natives’ land. The Indian family will then be conveniently killed off except for a little boy who wins the racial lottery at the end, being adopted by Pike, dressed up in a three-piece suit, and handed a copy of Caesar’s Gallic War.
*. I won’t go on in this vein. I didn’t like Hostiles much at all. It is very slow, clichéd, and improbable. The final battle, for example, is even more ridiculous than the one at the beginning, with a racist landowner and his hirelings just showing up and immediately getting into a gunfight with some federal troopers for little apparent reason beyond a nineteenth-century warning to “get off my lawn.” Things escalate, as the saying goes, rather quickly.
*. David Sims: “Hostiles is a classic revisionist western, stripping away the traditional notions of good guys and bad guys on the American frontier and instead digging into the poisonous effect of decades of colonial warfare against the continent’s indigenous peoples. But though the film seeks to avoid many of the genre’s clichés, it nonetheless ends up slipping into some well-worn and dull dynamics of noble Indians teaching important lessons to their American occupiers.”
*. I wonder at what point we have to stop using the term “revisionist Western.” I mean, if this is “a classic revisionist western” then it’s not really revisionist any more, is it? I suppose “revisionist” in this context just means something other than a “classic” Hollywood Western. Like something made by John Ford (who Cooper quotes from occasionally). But surely the genre has been demythologized so completely by now (beginning with the Spaghetti Westerns) it can’t be revised much more. This vision of the West has become the authorized version. There’s nothing revisionist about it.
*. I don’t understand the good reviews this movie received. At best it’s a stiff, talky oater with nothing new to say and which goes on far too long. At worst it slips into unintentional humour. The scene where the good guys take out the camp of fur trappers who kidnapped their womenfolk is hilarious, what with the yelling and other noises coming out of the shaking tents. But I guess there are still critics out there who take this sort of thing seriously. Either that or there aren’t many real critics left. One or th’other.