REVIEW: “Hostiles”

Hostiles poster

A new traditional Western is somewhat of a rarity these days. You could say 2016 was the year of the subversive Western while 2017 didn’t offer much of anything for the genre. But then along comes “Hostiles” which sits somewhere between subversive and traditional.

“Hostiles” is written and directed by Scott Cooper, probably best known for his award-winning feature film debut “Crazy Heart”. The movie begins with the ‘traditional’ – a familiar but effective opening sequence showing a frontier family brutal attacked by a Comanche war party. The lone survivor, a wife and mother named Rosalie Quaid (played by an excellent Rosamund Pike), is left in a state of shock.

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The story then moves to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen his share of frontier bloodshed. And while he tells himself he was justified by simply “following orders”, the killing has taken a toll. He reluctantly accepts a mission to escort an imprisoned, dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana tribal homeland on orders from President Harrison.

Bale and his handpicked soldiers set out with their Native American prisoners to make the dangerous journey north. Cooper fills this party with some good faces. Bale is outstanding with a ‘less is more’ approach and I’ve always enjoyed Wes Studi. But we also get Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach and current flavor of the year actor TimothĂ©e Chalamet. Pike joins them after her traumatized Rosalie is discovered among the charred remains of her frontier home. A blood-soaked pilgrimage follows with several characters forced to reckon with their past and present sins.

There is an interesting line “Hostiles” walks. On one side it openly recognizes the part bigotry and brutality played in American policy towards the indigenous peoples. On the other side it doesn’t insult Native Americans by portraying them as overly sentimental dramatic pieces. Walking that line is Blocker, disillusioned by the military he has blindly served and bitterly prejudiced because of the men he has lost in battle with the natives. He is the film’s centerpiece and while there are intriguing ideas about what he represents, I was just as much into his personal quest as a broken man in search of repentance.

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“Hostiles” is a bleak and tough-minded movie. In Cooper’s portrayal of death and suffering neither discriminates and none of his characters are free from the sting whether it be during their trek north or from scars of the past. Cooper uses explosions of violence but he also allows for quiet meditative moments that aren’t without purpose. It makes for a slow burn which may not satisfy those looking for a more traditional western shoot ’em up. But as the group moves across Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautifully shot landscapes I appreciated the action as well as the contemplation.

Some of the responses to “Hostiles” have been curious. Many have criticized Cooper for his “white perspective” even going so far as to say the movie is an attempt to ease a nation’s guilt over their treatment of Native Americans. Those are dramatic stretches which tags the film with an unfair label. It never draws a broad equivalence between the motivations of the U.S. Army and the natives. Again, Blocker makes several references to his “job” which he knows is genocide. And the Army’s atrocities take various forms within the characters particularly Cochrane’s and in Ben Foster who appears later on. It’s even hinted at in the D.H. Lawrence quote which opens the movie — “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

“Hostiles” is unquestionably solemn and dour yet fittingly so considering the subjects it wants to explore. But at the heart of the movie lies a message of reconciliation and healing which is especially welcome during our current times of such division. The wonderful final shot offers us a glimmer of hope. It’s filled with uncertainty and it’s far from tidy. Yet it’s hopeful in a way that brings the film’s ultimate message to light.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Last of the Mohicans”

James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Last of the Mohicans” was first adapted for the big screen in 1912. Other versions of the story appeared at theaters in 1936 and 1963. But then in 1992 Michael Mann delivered not only the best version of the classic story but also one of the most well-crafted and cinematic period piece films you’ll find. Mann gives us a gritty frontier action picture placed in a beautiful yet worn-torn setting. But an equally strong component of the film is the passionate love story interwoven throughout the picture. It’s a romance that never feels tacked on or disingenuous. In fact, it fuels much of what drives the narrative all the way to its powerful final 10 minutes.

The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Nathaniel Hawkeye, adopted white son of Chingachgook (Russell Means). Joined by Uncas (Eric Schweig), Chingachgook’s only blood son, the three find themselves involved in The French and Indian War that they are desperately trying to avoid. After tracking a Huron war party the three rescue Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Joghi May) Munro, daughters of a British Colonel stationed at Fort William Henry. Realizing more Hurons will be coming, they agree to lead the daughters and Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) to the fort. From there relationships develop, jealousy and deception is revealed, and the horrors of a new kind of war take center stage.

The casting is proven good by some truly wonderful performances throughout the movie. Lewis is fantastic as Nathaniel and his onscreen chemistry with Stowe is quite good. Their romance feels genuine even though it feels a little hurried. Lewis is also good in the action sequences as is Schweig and Means. The action is beautifully shot and choreographed and the three actors have absolutely no trouble selling it. Also fun to watch is the great Wes Studi as Magua, a twisted Huron warrior who wants to kill as many “grey hairs” as possible. Everyone is good in the film and even the smaller performances ting with authenticity.

This film version isn’t ardently faithful to Cooper’s novel but in many ways it’s an improvement on it. Mann and co-writer Christopher Crowe put together an energetic and fast-paced adaptation. It ruggedly portrays the demanding and taxing frontier life and sharply contrasts that with the aristocratic, prim and proper attitudes of the English and French. It’s that monarchist arrogance and sense of entitlement that meets the sharp and violent reality of the frontier. It also doesn’t shy away from giving the action a gritty and sometimes bloody presentation. But with the exception of one particular scene, the violence never feels gratuitous. Instead it feels like an accurate representation of what that crude and sometimes brutal combat would be like.

I also have to mention how wonderful the movie looks. I mentioned how beautifully shot the action sequences are but the same could be said for the entire picture. Filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the movie features so many scenes of natural beauty that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The gorgeous locations mixed with Dante Spinotti’s stunning cinematography gives the setting an uncharted and untouched look. And it’s impossible not to be impressed by his clever camera angles and perfectly executed long shots that give so many scenes an undeniable cinematic flare.

And speaking of presentation, I have to mention the incredible score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. Of all of the movie scores I have heard, and there are plenty of great ones out there, none has added as much to a film or effected me more that Jones’ and Edelman’s work here. From the percussion-driven music during the battle at Fort William Henry to the emotional period string arrangement playing during the finale, every note hits perfectly. But most importantly, the score adds to the mood and tone of almost every scene.

Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” is an example of wonderful filmmaking from title to credits. Some may not respond as strongly to its straightforward storytelling or its occasionally intense violence. But I love it’s fast and fluid pacing, realistic frontier depiction, and heartfelt romance. The performances are great throughout led by more strong work Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s also a technical achievement featuring stunning visuals, remarkable sound, and a soundtrack that still moves me to this day. This is a unique historical period film that has a feel all its own. It won me over when I first saw it in the theater in 1992 and it’s one of the few movies that I can watch again today anytime or anywhere.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M