For a re­view of “Hos­tiles,”

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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.”

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