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"HOSTILES"
(2017) (Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A late 19th century cavalry officer is forced to escort his former Indian enemy, now terminally ill, and that man's family from the New Mexico prison where they've been held for years back to their homeland in Montana.
PLOT:
It's 1892 and Joe Blocker (CHRISTIAN BALE) is a renowned cavalry officer who's nearing retirement, and has left a swath of dead Native Americans in his wake. But now he's been tasked with an assignment he can't stomach. And that's transporting his former enemy, Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (WES STUDI), from the New Mexico prison where's he been held for years -- alongside that man's son, Black Hawk (ADAM BEACH), daughter-in-law, Elk Woman (Q'ORIANKA KILCHER), daughter, Living Woman (TANAYA BEATTY), and grandson Little Bear.

The reason for the release not only stems from Yellow Hawk being terminally ill, but also a direct order from the President of the United States. Facing a court martial and loss of his pension should he refuse, Joe reluctantly accepts the order. Accompanying him are longtime friends and fellow soldiers, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (RORY COCHRANE) and Corporal Henry Woodson (JONATHAN MAJORS), along with the younger Lieutenant Rudy Kidder (JESSE PLEMONS) and Private Philippe DeJardin (TIMOTHEE CHALAMET).

Things become more complicated when they come across the site of a Comanche attack where the only survivor is Rosalie Quaid (ROSAMUND PIKE) whose husband and three children were murdered in front of her. Suffering from PTSD, she isn't happy to see the Indians in Joe's travel contingent, but with no other options, she joins them. Further along the way, they're joined by Sergeant Malloy (RYAN BINGHAM) who's been tasked with escorting prisoner Sergeant Charles Wills (BEN FOSTER) -- who once worked alongside Joe but recently murdered an innocent family in cold blood -- to his likely point of execution. As they make their way on their long trek, they must contend with repeated run-ins with the Comanche and others who aren't happy to see them.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
With the introduction of first-person, shoot 'em video games, I imagine an outdoor bit of role-playing that was common in my early '70s youth has likely gone, for the most part, to the trash heap of history. And that was when we played "war" pitting U.S. fighting men against the Nazis, "cops and robbers" (which was self-explanatory) and "cowboys and Indians" (ditto).

Not surprisingly, none of us kids wanted to portray the Nazis, robbers or Indians. In hindsight, that was a sad indictment of our schooling and pop culture in terms of how most everyone -- kids and adults alike -- vilified the latter group alongside the first two that obviously deserved such disdain.

In school, we were taught that the Indians were the savage aggressors who sought to stymie westward expansion and the manifest destiny of the white man. And in the movies, they were always portrayed the same way, villains through and through. All of which is shocking but not at all surprising (what with the mindset of the era) considering it was more than eight decades after Geronimo became the last Indian chief to surrender his tribe to the U.S. and none of us or our parents or most grandparents had any bad run-ins with Native Americans.

It certainly would have been more understandable all those years ago when Indian attacks on settlers did occur, even if they were the victims whose homelands had been invaded and taken from them. That's the backdrop for "Hostiles," a pretty terrific western drama about the tense and often volatile relationship between white folks and Indians out west.

In it, Christian Bale stars as Captain Joseph Blocker, a respected if ruthless cavalry officer who's long tried to keep the lands of western states safe for settlers. He's nearing retirement after decades of bloodshed on both sides, but his latest assignment has thrown his world into turmoil.

That's because his superior officer, acting on orders straight from the White House, wants him to accompany a terminally ill Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his small family (including Adam Beach as his adult son) from the New Mexico prison where they've been held for years back to their homeland in Montana. And not just any old chief but the captain's former enemy.

Faced with the potential of being court-martialed and losing his pension, Joe reluctantly agrees and sets out on the long trek with a small contingent (consisting of soldiers of varying degrees of experience played by Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Rory Cochrane, and Timothee Chalamet). It's certain to be a perilous journey, especially with the potential of Comanche warriors popping up at any moment.

And we know that could likely be a problem, what with having witnessed their savagery in the brutal opening sequence where a frontierswoman (Rosamund Pike) witnesses Indians kill her husband and three children while barely escaping with her own life. Joe and his contingent end up discovering her obviously suffering from PTSD and decide they have no choice but to take her with them.

Things become even dicier when one of Joe's former comrades turned captured domestic cold-blooded killer (Ben Foster) is forced into their journey as a prisoner. Which means the captain might have to rely on his former enemy for help should things turn dire on any number of fronts. All of that adds various levels of volatility and thematic matter to the 130-some minute runtime that writer/director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart," "Black Mass") handles with expert aplomb.

Featuring stunning cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (the western landscapes have never looked so good), a terrific central performance by Bale (who turns what easily could have been a simple two-dimensional character into an evolving and fully-formed one) and a gut-wrenching emotional one by Pike, the film is simultaneously brutal (not a lot of characters make it to the end) and thought-provoking on a matter of fronts, especially in terms of rethinking one's long-held view and opinion of others.

If there's one complaint, it's that the Native American characters aren't fully fleshed out and seem to play off old movie (and commonly believed and accepted) stereotypes of such people. There's the wise and stoic chief, the more hot-headed son, and the quiet women. I would have liked to have seen more interactions between Bale and Studi's characters that would have further helped the former's viewpoint transition. What's present works by default, but I think additional examination by the characters of their beliefs, biases and so on could have added depth and poignancy to the proceedings.

Even so, this is a solid and often terrific addition to the western genre. It might not be to everyone's tastes, but I easily have it in my top ten for 2017 releases. "Hostiles" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed January 15, 2018 / Posted January 26, 2018


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