MOVIE BUFF-ET: Hostiles: Strong performances undercut by poor story craft

Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Writer-director Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” is a beautifully shot, brutal Western, featuring strong performances by leads Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike and their supporting cast, but the movie’s overall story falls a bit flat and cops out with an ending that betrays the dark nature of the movie.

That said there is much to admire about Cooper’s film which boldly explores the trauma of war and life in general on the American frontier. Though set near the end of the of Old West period, the film details the trials of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder at a time when the term had not been coined.

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Bale plays Capt. Joseph Blocker, a devoutly religious Indian fighter who carries a burdensome load of guilt over the atrocities he’s committed in the line of duty during his 20 years of service. His final orders — signed by the President — before mustering out of the U.S. Calvary is to escort cancer-ridden Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and four members of his family, back to their tribal hunting land in Montana so he can die in peace.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk have an ugly history between them and that makes the thought of the two riding together intolerable to Blocker, who begrudgingly accepts his orders under threat of court martial and loss of his pension.

Pike plays a woman who loses her family in a brutal and graphic attack by a small Comanche war party. She is found and taken in by Blocker’s detail, which includes two trusted veteran soldiers in Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Cpl. Woodson (Jonathan Majors), fresh from West Point 1st. Lt. Kidder (Jesse Plemons), and just enlisted Pvt. DeJardin (Timothy Chalamet).

The Comanche war party remains in the vicinity, and it is almost certain Blocker’s party will have to face the renegades at some point on their trek from New Mexico to Montana.

Heaping coal on the fire, Blocker agrees to deliver psychotic military prisoner Sgt. Wills (Ben Foster) for court martial after a stop at a post in Colorado. Blocker and Wills served in campaigns together, but Wills has no remorse for acts he committed in the line of duty nor for the murders that left him incarcerated.

Intertwined in with these plot points are encounters with the Comanche, fur traders, and ranchers that offer moments of action and drama, but they play out in such a wrote manner that it undercuts the beauty of Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the power of the performances by the entire cast.

Though Cooper crafts an honorable allegory for the horror of war and its after effects on combatants and civilians, he rolls it out in such a paint-by-number way that it’s as if he’s unaware the Western genre has been around for a century.

However, that’s not the case because the movie borrows so heavily from director John Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “The Searchers” for its imagery, themes, and setting that there is no doubt that Cooper has studied Westerns, and good ones.

Perhaps the most off-kilter aspect of the movie is the tone of the film’s ending, which is incongruous with the bitterness and darkness Cooper establishes from the movie’s opening scenes.

It really is a shame that Bale and Pike’s outstanding performances — not to mention the rest of the cast’s — were wasted by such poor story craft. The cast’s performances befit a classic, but the story just failed them.

(R) 2 hr. 15 min
Grade: C

Classic Corner

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

If you enjoy Westerns, one of the best of the golden-age plays a 5 p.m. (CST) Saturday when Turner Classic Movies airs “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

The 1949 movie, shot in gorgeous Technicolor, is the second of three unconnected films — including 1948’s “Fort Apache” and 1950’s “Rio Grande” —that have become to be known as director John Ford’s “Calvary Trilogy.”

All three feature John Wayne as a member of the U.S. Calvary and are worthy Westerns to seek out and enjoy on their own merits, but “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” is pertinent at the moment for the similarities in plot it shares with director Scott Cooper’s recent film “Hostiles.”

Both movies feature a dedicated yet weary U.S. Calvary officer on his last detail that once again pits him against Native Americans and also includes the extra assignment of escorting civilians to safety..

Befitting the time, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a more sentimental and less brutal movie that features Wayne playing Captain Nathan Brittles, a character two decades older than Wayne at the time, who is not only asked to put down a potential uprising by the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes by also escort his commander’s wife Abby (Mildred Gatwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to meet a stagecoach that will take them east. It’s a dubious task for Brittles, one that seems destined to fail.

Further complicating matters, two lieutenants in the detail — John Agar as Cohill and Harry Carey Jr. as Pennell — have their eye set on courting Olivia.

Wayne, who has never received enough credit for his acting, is excellent in the role of the weary soldier, who has done his duty but fears a life without service.

The supporting cast is strong like in all of Ford’s films including winning work by Ben Johnson as a trusted scout, Victor McLaglen as Brittles good friend and sergeant, and George O’Brien as Brittles’ commanding officer.

Shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the movie features gorgeous scenery and the outstanding cinematography by Winton Hoch, who garnered and Academy Award for his work.