A vast majority of storytellers subscribe to the adage “show, don’t tell,” but perhaps no writer/director abides by that law to the letter more than Scott Cooper.
While Cooper’s signature writing style, often subtle to the point of being aloof, has helped him achieve undeniable past triumphs like the brilliant Jeff Bridges showcase “Crazy Heart,” it has, in more recent memory, produced a string of merely OK films that could have, and probably should have, been great.
Landing somewhere in between Cooper’s best and most decidedly “meh” work is his latest effort “Hostiles,” a Western that never transcends the genre, but packs just enough punch to escape suffering the same fate as Cooper’s missed opportunities such as the virtually joyless “Out of the Furnace” and stubbornly mediocre “Black Mass.”
Cooper’s screenplays are consistently devoted to searching for glimmers of hope by way of exploring hopeless cases, hardened central characters whose lives have devolved into barren wastelands.
This time around, Cooper’s mark is Army Captain Joseph Blocker (frequent Cooper collaborator Christian Bale), a decorated war hero in the Wild West, specifically New Mexico in 1892, who is on the verge of retirement and whose full-bodied mustache is almost enough to distract from the visible pain in his eyes.
Despite Blocker’s reputation for being ruthlessly violent in his prior dealings with Native American enemies, his mastery of a myriad of Native dialects lands him one final assignment before he can retire: escorting dying, imprisoned Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, who you’ll probably recognize from his roles in films like “Dances with Wolves” and “Last of the Mohicans”) and his family to their tribal lands in Montana for the purposes of a proper burial.
Initially, Blocker refuses the orders adamantly, still harboring bitter resentment toward Yellow Hawk based on old scores in previous battles. When Blocker is faced with a court martial for disobeying orders, however, he reluctantly assembles a team of soldiers to help him lead Yellow Hawk and his family back to their Montana homelands.
Along the way, Blocker and Co. cross paths with Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), a grieving mother who, in the film’s brutally (and some may say gratuitously) violent opening scene, witnessed the murder of her husband and three young children at the hands of a pack of Comanche bandits.
Simultaneously beautiful and frustrating, “Hostiles” begs several character-driven questions that Cooper’s elusive script rarely allow to be answered in a satisfying manner. Yellow Hawk and particularly Blocker are naturally intriguing enough as character studies to elicit our genuine curiosities, but their potentially rich personal histories remain maddeningly hypothetical.
What Cooper fails to accomplish with the pen, however, he compensates for in masterful fashion with the camera. Cooper takes full advantage of the Western setting’s inherently breathtaking landscape, and boy, does Cooper understand camera angles; his penchant for capturing stunning visuals doesn’t save the script entirely from its shortcomings, but it certainly helps the story’s stronger moments pop.
“Hostiles’” more subtle aspects are also enlivened by the firmly dedicated work of its lead actors. While the talented Bale’s turn as Blocker won’t go down as one of his most memorable roles, his gritty commitment to the performance here makes Blocker a grounding force all throughout the proceedings.
But the most electric performance here is delivered by Pike, who relishes the opportunity to explore all the stages of grief. Transforming seamlessly from suicidal to iron-willed, Pike deftly imbues the film with the energy it often needs.
Credit is also owed to Studi, Jesse Plemons (another one of Cooper’s go-to performers) and particularly relative newcomer Jonathan Majors in their supporting roles.
To watch “Hostiles” is to experience how a schoolteacher must feel when a brilliant student coasts on B’s: you can’t help but grimace thinking about the potential being squandered, but you also must acknowledge that it got the job done.
No, Cooper’s “Hostiles” never amounts to the masterpiece that’s hidden somewhere within its pages, but this long journey from New Mexico to Montana is lined with just enough unique ground to make it a worthwhile Western.
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