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'Hostiles': Requiem for the Horse Opera

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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You know that lyric from "Home on the Range," where the cowpoke asserts that "seldom is heard a discouraging word?" Well, if you go by the realistic take on the Old West proffered in director/writer Scott Cooper's "Hostiles," the reason no one says anything discouraging is that they're either dead or fighting like crazy to keep from being dead. 
While poet Joel Barlow hoped his "Vision of Columbus" (1787) would be our version of "The Iliad," he was premature. There would be 100 more years of conquering the natives before America's character would be formed.
This is a very studied work, contemplative, moody, often slow and then jarringly punctuated with a brutally truthful, enigmatic and almost fatalistic violence that contradicts the glorifying horse operas that came before it, and in the bargain explains the genre's dwindling popularity.
Sure, the costumes are period piece romantic, the stunning vistas of a still pristine West utterly breathtaking. But with no sugarcoat of pageantry added to soften what is purely a chronicle of one people confiscating real estate from another, Cooper expresses the sad reality of history.
Plainly, annexing, occupying and outright seizing of sovereign territories has been going on since Goog the caveman figured Glug's wooly mammoth-rich land would serve him better. But where Cooper most succeeds with his film, set amidst the last drips and drabs of American Indian resistance in 1892, is in its personalization of the seemingly unstoppable whirlwind. It's in the wary and weary eyes of his principals ... folks trying to survive the elements and the lesser angels of human nature, conflicted between what they think is right and the prevailing doctrine.
Thus it is with no small amount of animosity that Christian Bale's Capt. Joseph Blocker accedes, under threat of forfeiting his pension, to escort previously imprisoned and now dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his ancestral home in Montana. As is often the
case in journeys meant to distill the significance of the human condition, we find Blocker at a watershed. Though he has spent the bulk of his career in the U.S. Army fighting and killing the indigenous population, as retirement nears he has begun to ask himself the big questions.
Of course there's a lady who helps spur the introspection. In clichéd dramatic form that we readily accept thanks to the splendid complement she represents, pretty Rosamund Pike as the tragically widowed Rosalie Quaid is a welcome addition to the group of Indians and soldiers who set out from New Mexico. Expect all the usual dangers along the trail, except that, unlike the requisite perils that a lifetime of viewing Westerns has familiarized us with, each event seems much more stark, shocking, as if exorcised from the context of its fictional-friendly usualness.
As the ragtag group diminishes in number, it affectingly dawns that these are real people dying, and for no truly noble purpose. But while there isn't too much time to think about it, it is in the aforementioned pauses where Mr. Cooper's characters evince a searing naturalism, replete with volumes of religious self-examination verbalized in snippets of hopeful catharses. It is touching, frightening and will disappoint if not outright anger the blood-and- guts enthusiast who just wants to see a lot of murdering and none of that "goody-goody philosophical stuff."
All the same, "Hostiles" doesn't work to disparage the spaghetti westerns, psychological horse operas and the 1940s film noir scripts turned into shoot-'em-ups that served as our entertainment whenever we had a hankering for saddling up and hitting the Bijou. Rather, it tacitly encourages accepting them as parts of a historical process, the mixing of jaundiced chronicle and art necessary to venerating a nation state's origination and vowed mission. It'd hardly enthuse pioneers to believe our purpose was anything less than righteous and worthy of example.
The serendipity consequence is that a funny thing happened on the way to creating our heritage. We came to buy it hook, line and sinker, so much so that even a 21st century accountant beset with a moral dilemma might ponder, at least for a second, how a venerable marshal like Gary Cooper's Will Kane in "High Noon" (1952) might resolve matters. It goes 'round and 'round. For while that movie was a surreptitious comment on McCarthyism, the enmity between whites and Native Americans in "Hostiles" surely references America's immigration bafflements.
This can be conflicting. For in-between the splash-in-the-face lessons of this phenomenally scenic adventure, there I was in a Saturday matinee of the mind with Dave Schenker, as trusty a sidekick a cowboy could want. Hustling home from Newark's Roosevelt Theater in the approaching dusk, giving our toy six-shooters their rat-tat-tat voice while trying to keep from tumbling into the sticker bushes, we reveled in our Indian fighting. It would be years before we realized via artistic truth serums like "Hostiles" that our real fight would be against intolerance.
"Hostiles," rated R, is an Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Scott Cooper and stars Rosamund Pike, Christian Bale and Wes Studi. Running time: 134 minutes

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