Hostiles Wants to Revise the Western While Boring You to Sleep (AFI Fest Review)
Every few years, some director thinks they're the first one ever to think that cowboy tropes are broadly stereotypical and have racist baggage, and they set out to make a movie that subversively undermines the cliches. Usually, said movie manages to still be from a white, privileged perspective, because studios think we need Kevin Costner to help us relate to Native Americans. Hostiles, the latest from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, likewise assumes we need the help of Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike to see the error of our racist ways, but it'd only be worth getting outraged about if the movie were more engaging, rather than the drawn-out bore that it is.
There is the core of a decent idea in there somewhere; Cooper's thesis is, more or less, that racism makes everything and everyone terrible and just leads to more violence. Everyone's hate brings everyone down, and that's a better starting point than, say, Crash's "That racist is surprisingly nice! That tolerant liberal really isn't!" superficiality. Unfortunately, it's muddied significantly by a half-hearted love story, one which suggests you can find your own happy family when they're the only ones left after everyone else has been conveniently murdered.
Bale, as the portentously named Captain Joseph Blocker, is tasked by official presidential order to escort infamous Indian Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his ancestral ground where he can be buried once the cancer that's killing him finally wins. Blocker, a man with a lot of blood on his hands, tries to refuse, as Yellow Hawk has killed many of his friends, but is unable to evade the assignment. Along the way, encounters with far more murderous Indians and cowboys, and the rescue of a woman (Pike) whose whole family were slaughtered, will cause the two men and their companions to realize...get this...that they are more alike than they are different. Plus Bale and Pike's characters will fall for each other, because they are the movie-star leads and that is what they do.
Between bouts of violence, it's a dull journey, full of long conversations where people tell Blocker he's a good man even though he doubts it, and Yellow Hawk being noble, stoic, and not generally acting like a terminal man except for a few coughing bouts. Cooper feels unfocused as a director here: the romance feels too forced to be the big payoff it's played as, and one senses that taking the race relations theme to a bleaker conclusion was an idea ultimately frowned upon. It's based on an original manuscript by the late Donald E. Stewart, but if it's an accurate adaptation, it could have used more "adapting."
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