Hostiles: Frontier philosophy

Westerns just aren’t as simple as they used to be.

No longer can a filmmaker simply declare that “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” and set in motion a lively, usually gregarious sequence of events that typically ends with a duel at high noon.

Complexity is key to a strong Western nowadays. Director Scott Cooper’s fourth feature film makes major strides towards deep meaning, but occasionally falters while on the journey for truth.

Racial tensions between white frontiersman and Native American tribes take center stage director in “Hostiles,” a searing, yet excessive tale of a retiring Army captain forced to escort his dying rival across dangerous territory during the 1890s.

Academy Award winner Christian Bale gets plenty of opportunity to brood and chew up scenery as the legendary Captain Blocker, a legendary man who prefers to speak with actions rather than words and brandishes justice with a bullet to the head.

There’s nothing particularly exceptionable about Bale’s performance, yet the talented actor will draw audiences in with his supreme confidence slowly being withered away as he comes to respect a menacing chief who killed many of his close friends.

With her best work since her Oscar-nominated turn in 2014’s “Gone Girl,” Rosamund Pike revels in a range of emotions with a half psychotic, half catatonic performance as a grieving widow.

Her character’s changing attitudes towards Native Americans reflects the overall point Cooper goes for with “Hostiles” and it’s only in Pike’s work that he achieves his end. While it’s clear the film wants viewers to relate to the battle-hardened Blocker, Pike’s dynamic performance forces audiences to view the film from a different perspective.

Billed as the third lead, Wes Studi (and all of the Native American performers in “Hostiles”) takes the proverbial backseat to the trials and character development of white performers, which feels counterintuitive to the overall goals of the film. Studi’s stoic, almost nonverbal performance is powerful and yet feels incomplete.

“Hostiles” also underutilizes a talented supporting cast including “Hell or High Water” star Ben Foster as a derelict officer and 2018 Academy Award best actor nominee Timothée Chalamet as a private under Blocker’s command.

Inherent danger and violence play key roles within “Hostiles” and the film confronts these realities head on in a manner that’s not exactly gruesome, but certainly not for the faint of heart either. Death by gunfire is approached with a plain, matter of fact casualness fitting of the time and yet may feel exceedingly callus to audiences.

Like his three prior films, Cooper maximizes the performances of his lead actors. Yet his films languish with tedious, poorly paced conversations.

“Hostiles” especially lingers well past the ending of moments failing to often achieve the artistic effect Cooper desires in his work.

Visually, “Hostiles” radiates with a warmth and depth usually found in only the best of the western genre.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi renders each frame vividly and artistically, as if audiences are leisurely strolling through a high-end gallery.

This gives Cooper’s film a perfect setting through which to examine racial strife, life and the meaning of death. However, “Hostiles” rarely rises to the level it pontificates at.

Viewers hoping to be challenged by deep, meaningful insights might be better served by Dee Rees’ Oscar nominated drama “Mudbound,” now available on Netflix.

Designed as Oscar fodder, “Hostiles” rightfully wound up just short of contention in any category, though the film’s artistic and acting merits were worthy of consideration.

As western films go, “Hostiles” strives to be classified alongside prestigious arthouse films like “Dances With Wolves,” but never really makes it into that rarefied air.

In spite of an end product that’s about 15-20 minutes too long, there’s enough quality within Cooper’s film to merit serious conversation for a trip to the theater.

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