15 February, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For Lesson #447


A REVIEW OF HOSTILES (2017)



Hostiles is the type of film I wanted to make in college. It’s a harsh, brutalist gaze into the American west that parlays with the complexities of violence, race, and man’s place in the universe. It’s a film that harkens back to the classics of the genre, as well as to the great works of western civilization. It’s a smart, well designed, well shot, and well scored film with some terrific performances. It’s also, ultimately, overlong and careless with its characters and its sharpest scenes are offset by mushy, needless side plots. Hostiles is a bummer, and not for the right reasons.

Basically, we should all be glad nobody is stupid enough to give me eighty million dollars to write Cormac McCarthy fanfic.

Man. This poster is pretty good.
What Hostiles gets right is a movie that feels like the American west. There’s a frisson to the film that isn't something I think that I’ve ever seen in films before. It's a film that properly understands the scope and scale of the American west, which is a concept that is as hard-boiled and overdone as any location in all of cinema. And yet, in Hostiles, the sheer size of it and how small you feel within that landscape presses down on you for every moment of the film. Hostiles is shot and lit and directed with a skill and a sensitivity to time and space that, even in its most confounding moments, always feels significant.

The main problem with the film is that it’s forty minutes too long. More specifically, it runs out of plot about an hour into the film. Hostiles sets up a scenario in the first half of the film (a man protects Indians from other Indians, with one big complication in the middle. A basic Campbellian set-up) and then, for some reason, discards that premise (off screen, no less) in favor of a completely different story (featuring well-known cowboy actor Ben Foster who I am concerned might be stuck in a time warp of some variety). It’s baffling. And it’s boring. It’s a contrivance that grinds the movie to a halt that it never quite recovers from. As much as we all love revisionist westerns, maybe it’s time to go back and steal one thing from the classic era, which is a run time that makes sense.

On the plus side: The performances are top notch. Christian Bale continues to remind us why we give a fuck about Batman and Rosamund Pike continues to be. . . Rosamund Pike—I mean, filthy and sun-burnt Rosamund Pike, but she can’t fool me.

Then you got Jesse Plemons as a feckless West Point graduate (guess what his story arc is—Close! It’s that exact thing you just thought, but duller). You also got Paul Anderson (as the character he always plays, accent and all), as well a strangely unmalignant Stephen Lang. Rounding out all of these character actors is Peter Mullan, the English Stephen Lang (which means he does more theater and could also actually kill you if he wanted to). And, finally, in a currently-playing-at-the-Laemelle-Playhouse hat trick is Timothee Chalamet [sic], who needs to give his agent a raise.

Man. This poster sucks.
Most importantly, though, Hostiles stars Wes Studi, an actor that I’ve greatly admired for years. Part of that is because, well, he’s talented. Another part of that is I am hard pressed to think of a less thankless career than Wes Studi. He’s played an Indian character in just about every western from Dances with Wolves onward—almost always as the bad guy. And as good as he is, man, that’s gotta be exhausting. Still, it’s a testament to his skill as an actor that even in a movie as unfocused as Hostiles, he still stands out. Even in worse westerns (like Dances with Wolves, one of the most profoundly shitty Best Picture winners ever), Wes Studi is a man that stands out. I mean, just look at him.

(Also, shout-out to Adam Beach. Always good to see him working—even if it’s also doing the same, thankless Indian roles time after time. Then again, what the fuck do I know? Maybe he's got a successful kombucha business and he's just doing these movies for laughs. Anything is possible.)

WAIT—STOP THE PRESSES.

HOLY SHIT.

The bearded sergeant with “melancholia” is the stoner kid from Dazed and Confused! Fuck! Holy shit! Fuck! Wooooooah! That dude is awesome! Movie is still not super great, but man, what if they got all these actors together and made something awesome? Wouldn’t that be great?

Man. . . 

Anyways. . .

Hostiles is a disappointment. As a fan of westerns, of brutal American violence, and of good films in general, Hostiles fails to stand out as any one of those things. While it is not without its moments or its charms, as a film, it is an overlong and overindulgent mess. Despite the performances, the end result is a film that meanders instead of being epic and is less episodic than it is confused. Hostiles could have been great. Hostiles should have been great. That’s the biggest bummer out of all of this. 

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and greatly admires his scalp. You can donate to his Patreon . You can buy the book he edited here (and on eBay). You can also follow him on Twitter. Also, if you well and truly give a shit hmu on my Paypal. Want to buy me a coffee? Get at my Ko-Fi. Happy new year!