Thursday 4 January 2018

Stop the cavalry: "Hostiles"

There are director-star pairings that will forever quicken the cinephile pulse: one thinks immediately of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, shortly to be reunited on Netflix's The Irishman, or Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, prime movers behind the incoming Phantom Thread. And then there is Scott Cooper and Christian Bale, a duo who singularly failed to set the world alight with 2013's busted awards flush Out of the Furnace, and who this week reunite for the utterly ponderous Western Hostiles. The key to those more successful creative partnerships may be that their constituent components complement one another: Scorsese lends grace to the earthbound De Niro, while Day-Lewis stitches the detail into Anderson's fancier conceits. The impression one gets from their first two films together is that Bale, cinema's last bastion of Method, and Cooper, a sometime actor who turned director with 2009's Crazy Heart, are too damn similar in their sensibility, and so have come to push one another on to attain whole new levels of humourless strain. 

Hostiles offers an example of this before its first reel is even out. After Bale's Injun-hating Army captain Joseph Blocker has reluctantly accepted the assignment of escorting ageing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his reservation, Cooper cuts to a sequence in which his leading man can be observed in the desert, silently screaming while burying his pistol in the sands. There is no immediate narrative motivation for this sequence, not does it tally with anything that follows: it's just a Serious Moment of Serious Acting, put there to establish, as if we hadn't already guessed from the pre-credits massacre of a young family, or the early scene in which Rory Cochrane mutters between eighty and ninety percent of his dialogue into a thick trapper's beard, that what we are about to watch will be no City Slickers. You can appreciate the effort, up until the point - around thirty minutes in, with roughly a hundred more to go - that you sense everybody on screen is trying way too hard.

Adapting a manuscript by the late Donald E. Stewart (who somehow earns an executive producer credit some nineteen years after his passing), Cooper clearly intends this as one of those self-consciously New Westerns, an oater that reflects the concerns of a writer-director in 2018 at least as much as it does those of homesteaders back in 1898. If Hostiles is about anything other than a couple of Hollywood creatives' desperate need to impress themselves upon viewer and awards committee alike, it's about trauma: that of burnout Cap'n Joe and his put-upon charge, and of the bereaved wife and mother (Rosamund Pike) that Blocker's detachment picks up en route, who helpfully - if none too subtly - underlines this key trope when she empties an entire chamber of bullets into an already prone corpse. There are bodies on the ground and in the ground and swinging from the trees; Cooper crams so much death into every frame it's barely a surprise there's no room for much in the way of life. 

Beyond that, the writer-director clearly intends to issue a statement of some kind on race, and America's continued inability to make peace with itself. In this Old West, the white folks shoot first, and the natives' dialogue is dutifully translated, while the presence of Studi and Q'orianka Kilcher (Malick's Pocahontas) confer a certain respectability on the project, no matter that they have far fewer scenes and lines - subtitled or otherwise - than the grimacing palefaces around them. We're meant to be pathetically grateful that Cooper has rounded up a posse of committed character actors to chew these scenes over like tobaccy, and certainly we feel in safer hands when veterans like Stephen Lang (as Blocker's superior) and Peter Mullan (a fort commander) mosey on into shot. Yet the bulk of Bale's entourage (Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, the suddenly prominent Timothée Chalamet) have no real story function save to wheel around on horseback during the shakily staged ambush setpieces. Ben Foster turns up 75 minutes in to engage Bale in two scenes' worth of resigned mumbling, before - wisely - cutting his losses and heading for the hills.

Sole point in the film's favour: a solid Western look. After carrying out Cooper's eye-rollingly obvious homage to The Searchers - another early, empty gesture towards Seriousness - the smart Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) opens up the screen space in ways that prove thematically effective: this America really does look big enough for everybody. Yet Takayanagi's proficiency only further points up how little of worth Cooper brings into view: a limply episodic white-saviour narrative that shrugs off the symmetry it first feels out between the Captain and the Chief, a fair bit of thespian muscle-flexing, indulged by the director in the hope of filling the frame and the epic running time, and a lot of editorial handwringing that, at the last, packs us off to the car park with a wispy plea for unity. The insistent terseness is both a limitation and a front for a movie that really has nothing new or rewarding to communicate: it leaves us sitting before a Western where the cowpokes often seem too lockjawed to speak, and the horses have been freighted with so much baggage no-one can break into even a pleasant canter. Lighten up, dudes.

Hostiles opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

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