Review: Hostiles

Hostiles PosterGenre: Drama, Period, Western
Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, Adam Beach, Ben Foster.
Year Of Release: 2018
Certificate: 15 (UK)
Runtime: 133 Minutes
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer(s): Scott Cooper & Donald E Stewart
Synopsis: “In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.” IMDB
Rosamund Pike is one of my all-time favourite actresses. Max Richter is probably my favourite composer. Westerns, however, are not my favourite genre in the world; my experience with them is limited at best, utterly mortifying at worst. I try to leave all preferences and bias at any screening’s door, entering with an open mind – but it cannot always work out that way.Still, 2018 is the year I leave my comfort zone and broaden cinematic horizons. I decided to delve into Hostiles heart first.Scott Cooper’s latest feature-length, Hostiles, follows a U.S. Calvary officer instructed to escort a Cheyenne war chief – responsible for the murder of a number of his friends and associates – back to his home in Montana in the late 1800s. Along the way, they diverge to investigate the Quaid’s charred house where they discover an emotionally-scarred woman surrounded by her butchered family, murdered at the hands of a Comanche war party. Pike stars alongside Christian Bale in Cooper’s latest feature-length, with supporting performances provided by Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Timothée Chalamet and Jesse Plemons.
Hostiles 3Hostiles is the very definition of a slow-burner. In fact, it’s an excruciatingly slow burn at times, sluggish and slack. Some pictures feel comfortable in their own skin, marinading in their own bubble and sauntering along at their own pace while remaining utterly compelling; Hostiles is not one of those films. Your attention will almost certainly dwindle and your patience is constantly adrift. It’s a film that desperately attempts to be reflective and thoughtful but without the sophistication to consider profoundly or delicately; in fact, it’s a pretty troublesome rumination at times.

A bruising brutality packed with striking imagery defines the opening sequence, a hard-hitting, stomach-punch of emotion and intensity. The penultimate sequence is similarly remarkable, powerful if heavily foretold. Bookending an excessive 127-minute runtime, very little outside these moments make much of an impact. Besides a handful of fantastic performances and stirring music, the well-intentioned, ultimately-botched piece of cinemas struggles to coalesce into anything remotely satisfying and you find yourself unable to grant it your full attention or care.

Most crushing is that runtime. Hostiles spends far too long rambling with little cohesion, stumbling in no clear direction with limited knowledge on how to execute its bounty of important themes effectively. Cooper’s screenplay sags terribly, pushed over two hours for no apparent reason or need. It valiantly attempts a number of different genres – war, thriller, action and of course western, all housed in a hollow period piece – but it is devoid of the resources to succeed in doing even one of them well enough; it makes this exercise both stuffy and empty. Essentially, this same exact story could be told in a tighter 90-minute frame and be far more effective for doing so; yet Cooper lets it drag to 127 minutes and so much space causes any power to disperse with a trace.

Hostiles 2Cooper lacks the experience or knowhow to merge these ideas together sufficiently. Hostiles teases a complex examination of the troubled relationship between Americans and their Native counterparts, but it cannot find the appropriate way or manner to fully explore it, distracted by side-plots and excess ideas. It lacks the depth to its message and scope to its thematic content, tonally limited too. Each time it tries to probe deeper, it terribly misses the mark because its unable to focus on; it’s heavy-handed, scattershot and lacking sophistication with its execution. Unfortunately, that falls on Cooper’s skill as a writer due to such uneven, unsure storytelling.

As a director, Cooper is much more secure. Visually, it is a beautiful piece, soaring and bracing, mixing the violence of man with the beauty of nature with aplomb. The contrast is well-balanced and the aesthetics are enhanced ever so wonderfully by Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography; on a visual level, Hostiles is a tremendous, almost understated feat. In Richter’s hands, it soars sonically as well. His score may be slightly restrained in comparison to his previous works but it is a solid collection nonetheless. Melancholic, moving and potent, he continues to assert himself as one of our very finest composers working today.

A well-assembled cast do their best to keep us engaged, but they’re fighting a tide of mediocrity. Pike is the strongest here, demonstrating great skill and control as Rosalie; she develops from a scarred and traumatised woman to a warrior with grit and strength in front of our eyes. Cooper’s script does master Pike’s character’s development well but it wouldn’t have been as substantial without her talent or confidence. One of the most harrowing portrayals of trauma and loss, Pike amazes but her control is most impressive; many would be tempted to over-indulge in the character’s grief but Pike is controlled and restricts herself, a real sign of a complete talent.
Hostiles 1Christian Bale is solid as the leading man, but his character arc is not so well-crafted. He performs with magnetism and conviction throughout despite some shallow dialogue. Wes Studi is composed and poised as Yellow Hawk, expressing a great deal through facial expressions and mannerisms alone in a confident, well-rendered performance. Everyone else is fine-to-good but Timothee Chalamet and Ben Foster are particularly, noticeably underused.

In Conclusion: Hostiles

Hostiles lands on an ending both predictable and far too twee for a film that starts off so gutsy. What’s more, the ending is damningly glossy, Hollywood-esque in all its toe-curling shame; the use of the ‘white saviour’ trope is most off-key, clunky and acerbic, ill-judged and uncomfortable. While I don’t suspect for one second that this film goes out of its way to undermine the struggle of Native Americans, it relegates them to a plot device almost by default, instead teasing a romance and emphasising a main character’s redemption arc instead. If people had issues with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, they’ll find issue with this too. For a story of such thematic complexity, Hostiles focuses on the formulaic and pedestrian, losing ambition and skill in the process.

Ultimately, Hostiles burns far too slowly for my liking. It’s not without its strengths – an exquisite Pike and reliant Richter – but the ambitious film lacks the scope, depth or experience to execute it well enough, becoming ill-judged and unbalanced in the journey and production. It’s a chore to endure and could very easily be rectified with a harsher hand in the post-production process; narrowing this down to 90-100 minutes would deliver a far strong end product. Instead, Hostiles is disengaging, sluggish and disappointing- and it’s not just my genre resistance speaking.

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