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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hostiles

Scott Cooper's Hostiles is relentlessly bleak.  It seems designed to make its audience uncomfortable and depressed.  To make matters worse, it's also deadly slow.  I really have no problem with most slow-burn movies, but this one at times tested me.  It's so deadly serious that it seems to have no room for any entertaining qualities.  It's well made and well acted, but it also lacks intensity to the point that it started to be a bit of a slog.

It's 1892, and we are introduced to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale, wonderful here), who has been raging war against the Native Americans for years as an "Indian fighter".  He's been rounding up and locking them up, has lost a lot of good men on his side over the years, and basically sees them all as savages.  Now, the higher ups have ordered him, against his wishes, to escort a Cheyenne Tribe Chief (Wes Studi), who is dying of cancer, and his family back to their home so that the Chief can die peacefully.  Joseph is not thrilled about this idea, but the orders are from the President, and he has no choice but to comply.  With the Chief and his family in shackles, Joseph and his fellow soldiers begin a long and dangerous journey.

Along the way, they come across the frightened Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a grieving mother who witnessed her entire family, including her two young daughters and baby, get murdered by a Comanche raiding party.  We witness this act in the film's opening scene, and it's the one moment of the film that has real intensity and a raw sense of power.  Also strong is a later scene where we see Rosalie, overcome with grief, clawing at the land with her bare hands in order to dig graves for her family after the attack.  After these brief, but powerful, moments, the movie slows down to a near-crawl.  Joseph and his band make their journey, run into a lot of trouble along the way (there is another encounter with the raiding party, a run-in with some rapists, they are forced to transfer a former soldier of Blocker's who has gone psycho, and the usual racists who don't like seeing the Native Americans on their land), and eventually Joseph begins to respect the Chief and regret his former ways.

So, Hostiles wants to have a message about racism, and respecting those different from us.  Fair enough.  Joseph and the Chief learn that they have shared pain, and more in common than they initially thought.  This is all revealed very slowly, with dialogue that is self-important and slowly recited, so we don't miss a single important word that the movie is trying to tell us.  A lot of these scenes are also shot in darkness and flickering firelight, adding to the overall sense of gloom.  All of the actors are fine here, especially Bale, Pike and Studi, but the action moves at such a leisurely pace that it started to wear on me.  It's a movie made up almost solely of long, sad talks about hatred, loneliness, death and intolerance that probably read well on paper, but when you have actors reciting them (even actors as good as these), it sounds like prepared speeches, not dialogue.

I felt a certain coldness to these characters.  Even when Joseph is supposed to be reflecting on his past actions, I never really felt like his character was growing in any meaningful way.  I never felt the emotional connection that I think this story was supposed to provide me.  It simply seems to want to be downbeat and glum.  I have enjoyed many films that have given me sad or solemn feelings, but that's because I cared about the characters and their pain.  Here, the story just washes us over in misery, and sends us on our way.  It's a suffocating sensation on the viewer.  We feel pain and sadness, but we never exactly feel the desire for these characters to rise above it, because we're not invested enough in them.

Hostiles has all the makings of a profound and poignant movie, but it lacks the emotional current that would have gotten me truly involved.  It constantly kept me at a distance, content to just shove sadness and gloom in my face.  It's a depressing movie, yes, but the only response it got from me was a desire for it to end sooner than it did.  There is definite talent here, but it's all at the expense of an experience that I didn't really need.

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