HostilesScott Cooper (USA 2017)Christian Bale; Rosamund Pike
Viewed Cineworld Newcastle 9th Jan 2018; ticket £4.50
Wedding rites or How the West was Won!
Scott Cooper’s movie opens with a quote from D H Lawrence: “The American soul is hard isolate stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.”His film then proceeds to show that Lawrences’s thesis is too severe in its judgement.Given the right conditions and the right script a good woman and the wisdom of the native Americans, the white man’s soul can indeed melt.
The Western is the most malleable of genres.Its naturalistic settings with their tendancy to isolate issues, create an abstract canvass that allow it to take on many forms and develop multiplicities of themes that can reflect developing social and psychic concerns as they arise in the social matrix.
Scott Cooper, with a bent for dialogue that appropriately for Hollywood, imitates the clichés of Terrence Malick rather than the earthiness of Lawrence, has made a film heavily larded with tropes of new age sensibilities.
‘Hostiles’ set in 1892, and opening with images of a brutal Comanche raid and massacre of an isolated homestead, is a movie of seduction.Scott’s script chronicles how ‘Hostiles’ become ‘Friends’, as familiarity with the escorted native Americans softens grief stricken massacre survivor Rosalie, who develops love and solicitude for her co-travellers.Rosalie’s softening is accelerated by some female bonding when all the women are captured by a band of white trappers.Her seduction is shown in the film as she,like a Woodstock hippy, gradually turns native and adopts the dress look and coiffure of her new ‘friends’.Then, protagonist hard ass Joe, the ‘Injun hater’, as the odyssey of the trek across the West progresses, picks up on Rosalie’s example, and learns first to trust, then respect and finally to care about the natives with whose safe passage, against his will, he has been entrusted.
As well as the personal journeys of Joe and Rosalie, Cooper’s script creates a contemporary pattern of social support for the increasingly dire and disastrous situation of America’s defeated and demonised tribes. Scott’s script draws a picture of a wave of liberal sentiment sweeping though both the corridors of power and on the frontier demanding greater humanity in the treatment of native americans.Whilst it is true that President Cleveland had some sympathy with the native’s plight, he was not President in 1892 when the film is set, and it seems unlikely that his successor Harrison would have made the intervention required by the script. Perhaps this is beside the point, but the utterances by people on the frontier of neo-liberal opinion about tribal people, looks like a scripted retro-airbrushing, assimilated into the movie to assuage our contemporary guilt about the acts of brutal ethnic cleansing that underlay the establishment of continental USA.
Speaking of guilt, this is the mental state favoured by Scott to underpin the psychic drive of his Western.Westerns are characterised by psychic states relating to the action:righteousness, justice, doubt, self belief.But in tune with the times, and Hostiles is a movie designed as produced to be in tune with the times, and this is the age of guilt. Inn particular, but not exclusively, male guilt, as exemplified by Cooper’script when one of the hard bastards on the detail, comments: “We’re all guilty!” Thereby appropriating for the Western, in the form of ‘Hostiles’ the contemporary ‘howl’ of Western man.
Interestingly bound up in ‘Hostiles’ interminable slow journey across the frontierscape of America, there is also an allegory of sorts.The film can be read as a allegorical description of contemporary suburban American mating ritual understood as a trial by ordeal.Scott’s script documents the slow courting by Joe of Rosalie.We see his slow understanding that the old school tough male is no longer sufficient to woo the lady.He must be tough but he must also develop his ‘caring’ feminine side.In relation to her he must understand, that although he may rescue her, she is not in debt to him, but she is his equal.She stands beside him, not behind him; and she has the right to the space to develop her power and her wisdom.She decides the moment when they may touch.Through Rosalie, Joe learns the wisdom of the native people, and is brought to atonement, and an end to his opposition.He comes through the courting ordeal and at the end, instead of riding off into the metaphorical sunset, Joe jumps on the train to pursue union with Rosalie.
Cinematically Hostiles is a mess. The routine cutting, shot reverse shot, is uninspired and uninteresting.And Cooper’s camera seems to run out of ideas in this slo-mo paced movie in which we are inflicted with shot after shot depicting the line of horses and riders moving across the land.There seems to be a lack of imagination here on Cooper’s part working filmically on the meaning of the movement, and ways of treating this huge trek across the West, in a manner that would impart something of its function scale and grandeur.But there is nothing.Just long shots, fashionably slow, in which even the horses don’t come alive on the screen.They are ridden as if they were no more than automobiles out for spin on the highway.
Hostiles is rather a conceptual than a visceral Western.Even the much touted violence (actually rather stylised and not excessive) can save us from wanting some horse flesh, if not horse sense.