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CINEMASCOPE: DESOLATE LANDSCAPES

February 04, 2018

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Although Hostiles is a deliberately paced period Western with a longish runtime of 133 minutes, I found it incredibly gripping. Set in 1892, the extremely violent war film is enriched with multiple themes, but what I found most captivating was its portrayal of desolation. Not to sound like a drunk poet but, even long after it ended, Hostiles left a lingering feeling of melancholy in my heart, and not in a bad way.

Every other character in the film is a tortured soul. There is Captain Joseph J. Blocker, played in one of the best performances of his career by Christian Bale, one of the cruelest and most fearsome soldiers to lead America’s land grab into Native American territory. Nearly a decade ago, the stoic captain led his men to the capture of an equally cruel and fierce adversary, Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk, played by the award-winning Cherokee actor Wes Studi. Now, Blocker must escort the terminally-ill Hawk alongside his family to his tribal lands in Montana to live out his final days.

When Blocker is told by Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) to perform this final duty he is angry and reluctant because he lost a lot of good friends to the war chief. Stuck far from civilisation, Blocker’s men are all he has and war has taken a toll on each of them with a few hanging on by threads, clearly affected by PTSD. When one of Blocker’s men is nearly killed by gunfire, he breaks down because they are his last few connections with his humanity.

While Hostiles unflinchingly depicts the cruelty of some Native American warriors, it also shows an even more savage side to the white settlers

From the supporting performers, my favourite was Rory Cochrane (Master Sgt. Thomas Metz) playing a character who has been affected by PTSD the most — both mentally and physically. Metz’s pain comes from a surprising source: guilt. Not only is he torn by the loss his men over the years but his own brutality against the Native Americans. He is one of the few to realise that it is his side that are the aggressors.

Hostiles holds back no punches at its harrowingly realistic portrayal of loss, and nothing exemplifies this more than Rosalie Quaid (an outstanding performance from Rosamund Pike) who suffers tragedy at the hands of a Comanche war party. Their cruelty is such that Yellow Hawk tells Blocker, “They aren’t right in the head.” Perhaps their actions are simply a reaction to violent settler expansion.

When Hostiles began, I rolled my eyes at the savage characterisation of some Native American warriors, wondering if it would be another borderline racist Hollywood production; but Hostiles surprised me by showing an even more savage side to the white settlers. As the film progressed, I realised that this isn’t going to be a typical film from the genre.

It’s not all seamless though. My main criticism it is that some of the social commentary could have been used with more subtlety and that the Native American roles aren’t as fleshed out as they should have been. What’s more, it almost felt like Director Scott Cooper was almost afraid to leave it with the ambiguous thought-provoking ending it seemed to be leaning towards.

Hostiles is almost poetic at depicting the barrenness of the North American desert land. Long stretches of the film are wordless shots of the characters on horseback slowly traversing the hot rocky terrain. Making these sequences enthralling is the camerawork by Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who offers stunning shots of the landscape. Hostiles certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen, if nothing else, for its superb production values.

Rated R for strong violence and language

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 4th, 2018