For a review of “Hostiles,”
Scott Cooper’s grim, thoughtful revisionist western “Hostiles” opens with the D. H. Lawrence observation, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”
Its protagonist, Capt. Joseph Blocker, initially fits that diagnosis; he is not a hero, never was and never will be. He’s a cavalry soldier in 1892 New Mexico who has witnessed slaughter and survived with scars of his own. His enemies were not invaders but Native Americans standing against forced resettlement and extermination through the principle of Manifest Destiny, the notion that the United States was ordained by God to dominate North America.
While today’s historians equate that territorial expansion’s atrocities with what the Holocaust is to Jews and what slavery is to African-Americans, Blocker interprets it differently. His job is to suppress violent resistance to the law of the land. He is an ice- cold enforcer prepared to maintain order by any means necessary.
Blocker is the kind of distressing, morally discordant antihero that Christian Bale can play like a Stradivarius violin. In “Hostiles,” we follow him through a tragic march of progression across a landscape of impending dread and grief. While the film is not a barrierbreaking melancholy landmark like “Unforgiven,” they share a mature, tight, grounded approach to heavy subjects and a critical commentary on hand-me-down western tropes. It’s not the film I was expecting, but I respected what it is trying to do.
Rather than being glorified, violence is treated as one of mankind’s original sins. The film opens with a barbaric sequence of a Comanche raiding party murdering the husband, two daughters and infant son of Rosalie Quaid ( Rosamund Pike). Following that, we encounter Blocker, famed for taking “more scalps than Sitting Bull himself.” Much to Blocker’s dismay, he’s ordered to escort the newly released Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk ( Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana birthplace. Dying of cancer, Yellow Hawk wants to be buried in his homeland.
Blocker has spent his career battling the Cheyenne, whom he detests. Adding to his angst, Yellow Hawk killed several of his friends. But to pass the area’s Comanche bandits, Blocker grudgingly accepts that he must work with Yellow Hawk on the thousand- mile trek to the chief’s home.
Shortly after setting out, they find the traumatized and exhausted Rosalie still clinging to the baby’s body. Rosalie rides with the group to reach a distant rail line that can take her back to the safety of the East Coast. Along the way they pass visually impressive locations that evocatively capture the West’ s ominous beauty.
The narrative is Blocker’s journey past a history he’s not much proud of, with Native American actors Stud i , Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher ( Bale’s costar in “The New World”) providing a layered tapestry of resonant characters. Their part in the decades- long battles between settlers and natives is done. They simply want to move on, but Blocker is still internally at war.
Rosalie, who sees her traveling companions as separate from the Comanches who killed her family, emerges from her suicidal stupor and befriends the group. Between unnerving bloodbaths in which they all must work together to survive, a grudging respect forms between the parties. Meanwhile, Blocker faces a rising sense of personal remorse as his conscience begins to evolve. It’s a simplistic story line but an effective one.
Bale does outstanding work, revealing unexpected depths of intelligence and sensitivity. In one almost wordless, emotionally harrowing scene, he gives a private wet- eyed farewell to his most important friend, a hospitalized soldier ( movingly played by Jonathan Majors) whois going down hill. It’s clear that there is an injured heart beneath Blocker’s stoic seriousness.
It’s unfortunate that the remarkably charismatic Studi didn’t get a role of equal complexity and screen time. Even Pike, at her most actorish here, gets more attention for her suffering than the Native American characters. There’s ample time for them to share their stories, given the film’s leisurely pace. Once again, the dominant culture — this time Hollywood — doesn’t want to share.
“Hostiles,” an Entertainment Studios release, is rated R for strong violence, and language. Running time: 134 minutes. ½
“A Fantastic Woman”
There’s an interaction in the middle of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” that perfectly describes the film’s conflict and asserts its core thesis.
Two women meet in a downtown Santiago parking garage to exchange the car of the recently deceased Orlando ( Francisco Reyes). It’s the first meeting of his girlfriend, Marina ( Daniela Vega) and his ex- wife, Sonia ( Aline Küppenheim), and Sonia is anxious to get her eyes on Marina. “Just flesh and bones,” is how Marina describes herself to Sonia— she’s just another human body, like everyone else. But to Sonia, Marina is something else, a “chimera,” a mythical fire- breathing monster, part lion, part goat, part serpent.
There is something mystical and magical about Marina. Her unwavering gaze, powerful presence, intoxicating singing voice and her ability to see and interact with the dead— it’s all otherworldly. But Sonia’s intended assessment is much baser; she’s referring to Marina’s gender. She is a trans woman, and when Sonia refers to her as the “chimera,” an interspecies monster, it’s a cruel denial of her humanity, her “flesh and bones,” her existence. In “A Fantastic Woman,” Lelio explores the aggressions and oppression that Marina endures when something as profoundly human as death occurs.
Older businessman Orlando and Marina, a nightclub singer and waitress, are deeply in love, in the throes of a relationship that’s exciting, comfortable and sexy. They’re planning for a future: trips, moving in together, the culmination of a yearlong “soap opera,” as described by Sonia. When Orlando wakes up in the middle of the night dazed, with labored breathing, Marina rushes him to the hospital, where he suddenly dies, and her entire world gets pulled out fromunder her.
In the days following Orlando’s death, Marina’s rights, and her humanity are denied, criminalized, pathologized and violated, by everyone from the doctors at the hospital, who believe her a suspect, the police, who believe her a victim, and Orlando’s family, who believe her a perversion. Despite her vocal protestations, no one ever listens to or believes her, allows her to be an autonomous individual or understands she’s mourning the death of her lover. “Isn’t saying goodbye to a loved one a basic human right?” Marina demands of Gabo ( Luis Gnecco), Orlando’s brother, after she’s ejected fromhis wake.
Despite it all, Marina fights, because she must. Vega turns in a stunning, fierce and vulnerable performance, casting spells with her eyes. Lelio makes her the focus, and again and again her eyes break the fourth wall, whether riding an elevator, readying herself in a mirror or performing a fantasy dance number through the depths of her pain. Each time it’s a confrontation with the audience, an assertion of her soul. Marina is fighting simply to exist, and the film celebrates that existence.
“A Fantastic Woman” wouldn’t be the same without Vega — she makes the film what it is, shapes it with her body and spirit. As Marina she is heartbreaking, hopeful and undeterred, marching through her grief and trauma, leaning into the wind that tries to blow her down. She is powerful and delicate simultaneously, in equal measure.
Lelio crafts a world that’s realistically, distressingly unfair, violent and dark. But with Vega in the lead, her arresting screen charisma lends itself to some truly lovely and wonderful bits of fire and magic, proving to be quite the fantastic woman indeed.
“A Fantastic Woman,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault. Running time: 104 minutes.
Daniela Vega stars in “A Fantastic Woman.”