Prisoner of War
Director Scott Cooper reunites with his Out of the Furnace star Christian Bale for an expertly acted but somewhat undercooked reflection on the horrors of war.Bale's loyal soldier Captain Blocker has spent years killing - and worse - Native Americans for his country, making it hard to swallow his latest orders: a political assignment to escort Wes Studi's dying POW war chief Yellow Hawk back to Montana so that he can die on his homeland. Needless to say the journey does not go as planned, complicated by an encounter with Rosamund Pike's traumatised widow, who has recently encountered a Comanche war party. It's not long before Blocker realises that his once sworn enemy is the least savage and dangerous thing he might face on the voyage.Languid and elegiac, Cooper's Hostiles firmly lives up to its name, kicking the doors down with a terrifying opening attack, and frequently reminding us across the course that there's simply limit to the horrors that humans can inflict upon one another, whether it be for land, for greed or for their country. Cooper isn't interested in heroes and villains: everybody here is broken by war, and he's interested in observing each and every individual deal with the horrific things that they have seen, that they have done, and that they have had done to them, in their own unique way.
The focal points to this study are Bale's veteran soldier, on the eve of mustering out, and forced - by superior officers and stuffy political suits who have little regard for what he's done for his country - to confront his own personal demons head-on, and Pike's grieving widow, who needs to believe that God still exists in this Godless land. To this end both actors commit fully, with both given some scenes of pure emotional upheaval, screaming to the stars as if the heavens might erupt down upon them if they scream loud enough. They are also both given some more interesting moments of poignant reflection, where you can just about notice that their eyes are not dry, which are much more impressive touches of nuanced acting. Bale embraces the chance to get his acting teeth into some decent meat, and Cooper gives it to him, but beyond these two characters he refuses to flesh out his colourful and dysfunctional troupe with much more than genre tropes - new recruit; red shirt; proud native american son; tired native american father - instead happy to have a destination lined up for this particular tale, with little idea of how exactly to get the characters their in terms of their individual arcs.
Hostiles is ripe with impressive moments but is somehow unable to deliver its characters to their narrative destination.
Combining Malickian pacing (c.f. Malick's The New World, whose Pocahontas actress is actually here in a supporting role) with the unexpected violence - but not gore - of S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), Cooper unfortunately doesn't have either Malick's eye for beauty and feel for emotional substance, nor Zahler's surprisingly impressive handle on constructing multi-faceted characters before setting them off into hell. It's a shame really, because he worked his magic more adroitly on Out of the Furnace, and, even more obviously, on his debut, Crazy Heart, but Hostiles is occasionally closer to his last feature, the unexceptional Black Mass, in its skirting of the characters, which saps tension from the terrifying ambush scenes and robs poignancy from the emotional moments of confrontation, reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption. Come the end of it all, you get Cooper's message, and you're impressed by Bale's lead performance, but you're not really sure whether the resolution has been earned by the events along the way.
The languid pacing almost demands that the film be taken seriously, but resolute stoicism and somberness does not equate to resonance, and the characters may have been better served by a moment of humanity - or even levity (c.f. Costner's Open Range) - rather than just the bleak, unforgiving horrors of war.
Ultimately, Cooper does an impressive study of 19th Century PTSD, and Bale reminds us that he is a force to be reckoned with - and it's great to see The Last of the Mohicans' Magua himself, Wes Studi, back on the Big Screen - leaving Hostiles ripe with impressive moments, touching scenes and bouts of unforgiving violence, whilst rich with infectious melancholy, and war-torn symbolism and subtext, but still lacking a satisfying whole, somehow unable to deliver its characters to their narrative destination through any kind of organic, earned means. It's an engrossing but flawed western by a skilled writer/director and acclaimed actor.
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