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‘Hostiles’ depicts a violent era with spiritual integrity

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Preston Barta

Update: This story was updated to reflect a change in screening locations. 

Hostiles

Rated R, 133 minutes.

Opens Friday at the Cinemark West Plano, LOOK Cinemas Prestonwood in Addison and AMC NorthPark 15 in Dallas.

4 of 5 stars

Scott Cooper’s quiet but exceptional 19th century story, Hostiles, embraces a harsh central theme in the brutality of war and its ruinous effect on the men who fight. Where so many war films rush to romanticize the battles that won the West — often emphasizing ideas of honor, glory and patriotic duty — Hostiles sets out to portray war’s horrible reality. Rather than paint a romantic picture of heroism, Scott (director of Black Mass and Crazy Heart) presents a decidedly astute vision of fear and how that fear can cause us to turn against ourselves.

Need some proof? Look no further than the film’s brutal opening sequence, where a pioneer man is gunned down and scalped while trying to protect his family from a Comanche tribe seeking horses and supplies. To make matters worse, the father’s two screaming daughters and swaddled infant are shot dead, sending us on an intense foot chase with their surviving mother, Rosalee Quaid (an emotionally riveting Rosamund Pike), in the nearby woods.

It’s only natural that we bring our own beliefs and ideals to every story we read or watch, especially a story like this, which is primarily about two adversaries of the Indian Wars going on a spiritual journey of acceptance through an unexpected encounter. So whenever you see a major character committing a malicious act, you immediately recognize it as “hostile.” However, the film wants you to abandon all you know at the door in order to understand its characters and accompany them on their expedition.

This concept is perhaps best illustrated through the character arc of Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (an impressive Christian Bale), a former war hero, now jailer, who has a “war bag of reasons” for wanting America’s indigenous population to expire. He unwillingly partakes in the publicity stunt to bolster the personal and political prosperity of his commanding officer, Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang). His mission — which he can only choose to accept, or lose his pension fund — is to safely chaperone the leader of his worst enemies, Northern Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his homeland in Montana.

“[Capt. Blocker] is not a man of many words, but he’s an incredibly complex character to obsess over,” Bale said during a press junket in Los Angeles. “He represents an investigation of hatred and how someone can confront their prejudice. He has to ask himself, ‘How do you stop fighting without rendering your brothers in arms’ deaths meaningless?’”

Although the history between Capt. Blocker and Yellow Chief is never shown, you can feel and read it through their exchanges with each other. It is apparent Yellow Chief has come to the realization that the only way for his people to survive this ongoing war is through civility, which he tries to make Blocker understand. But Blocker has lost so many good men to Yellow Chief in the past that he’s not willing to surrender his history with him.

“One of the big mistakes that people make when reading a script or acting a scene is their only thought being what is spoken by the character,” Bale said. “I don’t share it with anyone, but I write so much more for my character than what’s on the page. I may never say the lines on screen, but they are thoughts that helped inform my character. Hopefully that comes through my performance.”

Bale’s character may not verbalize much, but by contrast, the audience can read volumes into his performance. Hearing stories about Blocker’s past through his interactions with the other men in his outfit (Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors and Jesse Plemons, to name a few), especially a moment when he speaks of how he was left for dead, impaled by a Kiowa spear, his bloodthirsty delight in the extermination of his enemies becomes uncomfortably comprehensible. This also goes for Rosalee, who becomes so traumatized by the slaughtering of her family that she loses her senses when she crosses paths with the next group of natives within Blocker’s company.

Hostiles is not an action-heavy historical drama. It’s less a physical journey and more of a spiritual one. While there are moments where guns fire and tension boils like a pot of water, Scott steers away from expectations and the road most Hollywood films go down to construct something that burrows into your brain and has a profound effect. Have patience, and the reward will be gratifying.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: Wes Studi, left, and Q'orianka Kilcher in a scene from Hostiles. Photo courtesy of Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.