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Lost in the Darkness

Hostiles and the point of violence


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HOSTILES. I've been perhaps misguidedly attempting to sort out my feelings about writer/director Scott Cooper's work — generally but also in this column — since Crazyheart (2009), his feature debut. That movie got all kinds of press, most of it for Jeff Bridges' lead performance and most of that well deserved. Even then I had the distinct feeling that Cooper was somehow putting one over on the audience, convincing them, through excellent casting and production design, that he was enjoining them (us, I suppose) to follow him into a place of authentic darkness. As much as I wanted to, I wasn't buying it back then and I still don't.

Cooper went on to make Out of the Furnace (2013), a movie about brothers contending with hard times that should have gutted me, and then Black Mass (2015), wherein he set Johnny Depp loose on the James "Whitey" Bulger story and made a run at encapsulating the baseball-bats-and-broken-glass ethos and esthetic of Boston crime life. Like Crazy Heart, both movies could be defined by admirers by their many successes: The look and feel are just about spot-on, the carefully selected casts give notable performances and the stories themselves are genuinely interesting and fundamentally well crafted. Technically speaking, they approach greatness. Their shortcomings, which could fairly be said to dwell mostly in the eye of this beholder, are in the storytelling, the insight and impulse of the teller of that story. Cooper seems to be fascinated by the darkness; loss and violence and chaos largely define his work. But the result of his examination of these ideas, the movies themselves, feel distanced from the truth of them, almost antiseptic. It's a little like watching a tiger eat a store-bought chicken in a cage at a zoo. There is truth in the violence but it barely hints at its fullness and finality.

Hostiles may be the most pointed example of the frustrating duality in Cooper's work. As it moves even closer to the hardness of human nature, focusing on people defined by the taking of life, it pulls ever further back from the reality of their actions, kid-gloving the violence so much that it threatens to undo the admirably committed performances of its cast and the achievements of the crew behind the camera. Case in point: Minutes into the thing, a baby in swaddling clothes is shot (!). Even the suggestion of this provokes, or should provoke, a visceral response. In the context of Hostiles, though, it doesn't resonate at all. The argument could be made that Cooper is suggesting something about the daily difficulty of life in this time and place, or that such things must become "a thing that happened," even as they are happening, but I'm not buying it. Given his body of work, I see this as just one pointed example of the fundamental flaw inherent in his storytelling. Through some unfortunate combination of composition, editing, music and performance, the vitality and horror of the moment are absented, and we are left with Rosamund Pike pulling faces, holding a blanket covered in stage blood; we are outside the truth of the thing.

As the movie opens in New Mexico, 1892, the homesteading Quaid family is approached by a Comanche raiding party. Wesley (Scott Shepherd) starts blindly and ill-advisedly shooting at their would-be assailants, after ordering Rosalie (Pike) to flee with their daughters and above-mentioned swaddled son. Wesley is summarily dispatched and the children fall in a somewhat implausible hail of gunfire, leaving Rosalie the lone survivor.

Meanwhile, nearby, U.S. Army Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) commands a cavalry unit tasked with rounding up and incarcerating the few indigenous people remaining in the area. Blocker is a warrior defined by the friends he has lost and armored in his hatred of the "enemy." He also speaks the language of the Cheyenne and knows intimately the trails and waterways of the area. As such, he is both the best and worst man for the detail to which he is assigned. Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief who has been imprisoned with his family for seven years in New Mexico, is dying of cancer. He has petitioned the U.S. government to be released so that he might draw his last breath in Montana, his home. His request is granted by personal letter from President Harrison, and Blocker, despite his protestations, is selected to escort Yellow Hawk and his immediate family northward. Along the way, the unlikely group picks up the shock-addled Rosalie Quaid, contends with the Comanche group from the opening, is set upon by rapacious trappers and takes on the ill-fated job of escorting a sadistic, vengeful prisoner (Ben Foster). And in the end, Blocker comes to learn that he and Yellow Hawk may not be that different after all.

Hostiles pays homage to the Western and to some of the classics of the genre, but it falls well short in either commenting on that genre or adding anything to it. Bale goes all in with his performance, as is his practice, and is fairly upstaged by Rory Cochrane as his right hand, playing Master Sergeant Tommy Metz, a career soldier whose conscience may well be his undoing. The costumery and the landscape against which the action takes place are both classic, near-perfect. But the lack of true moral ambiguity, the narrative distance, the simplicity and cautiousness with which the material is approached all contribute to the lasting effect of Hostiles, which is an absence of effect, an overall lack of resonance. R. 134m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

—John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


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