An army captain with a history of violence towards Native Americans is forced to escort a dying Cheyenne chief across miles of violence-ridden territory, from Fort Berringer, New Mexico to the chief’s home, The Valley of the Bears, in Montana.
Scott Cooper’s previous film, “Black Mass” (2015) was a very solid biopic about Whitey Bulger, the thug-turned-FBI-Informant from Boston; but it wasn’t without it flaws. One of its biggest flaws, in my opinion, was that it was treading over well-worn territory: Whitey Bulger was one of the main inspirations for Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006). And while the film showcased great performances from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton, it failed to meet the intensity and the vicious nature of “The Departed”. Coopers films before “Black Mass”, “Crazy Heart” (2009) (for which Jeff Bridges won his Oscar, and Maggie Gyllenhall received a nomination) and “Out of the Furnace” (2013) were also solid films, but tended to drag in sections.
With these three entries behind him, Cooper had proven himself as a competent director, but he wasn’t a director whose work I waited for on bated breath. Upon seeing the trailer for “Hostiles”, I thought the film looked as if would have a tone much like Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, intentionally slow with sporadic but savage violence peppered throughout. I was only half-right in my thinking. Cooper has increasingly shown real growth as a director, and “Hostiles” is proof of that. “Hostiles” is slow, true, but its pacing is much better than both “Heart” and “Furnace” (about on par with “Black Mass”). Overall, I found Hostiles to be my personal favorite of Coopers films (and I’ve seen all of them, thus far). A little disclaimer saying I do believe “Crazy Heart” is still probably the best of Cooper’s films, but “Hostiles” is by far the most enjoyable; it’s not exactly fun watching an aging alcoholic wrestle with his demons.
The plot of this film is meandering and slowly paced- just like the road they travel-but it is very intense at times. The wilderness is harsh and cruel, and the people that live there are harsher and crueler. The themes of this story are nothing new- like “Dances with Wolves”, “Last of the Mohicans”, even “Avatar”. You never really know people or understand them unless you try, and then in the end, you’ll find out we’re all the same. I could’ve told you where the themes and where the character arcs would go from just watching the trailer, but it’s in Cooper’s execution that this film really finds its footing. The film is bleak and quiet, much like the landscapes they traverse. It is quite violent, but that violence is absolutely necessary to the film, to the growth of the characters. Some may find the pacing a bit slow, but I found the time between skirmishes only gave the viewer time enough to dread the next onslaught.
My biggest issue with the film is some of the scenes, while necessary, feel out of place. There are many scenes of conversations between only one or two characters, and sometimes the characters tend to slip into long monologues about their feelings towards the opposing sides or the nature and relationship of violence and man. I never had a problem with the dialog in these scenes, nor the actual deliverance, but sometimes it felt to me like Cooper was soliloquizing too far. These scenes were always necessary to show the growth of characters or some progression in plot, but the execution felt like it would’ve worked better in a novel or as a stage play.
Personally, I would rank this as one of my favorite modern westerns. The Coen Brother’s “True Grit” (2010) is still probably the best western in recent memory, but this one certainly holds its own. It is not without it’s flaws, but few movies truly are. “Hostiles”, when taken at face value, is a brutal look at the dying American west; it’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and a fierce journey to travel.
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