Before I attended an industry screening of 'Hostiles' in December, I was sure that the film would have a stronger presence in the Award-season conversation than it has. I think Christian Bale is still a possible 'Best Actor' nominee, but the rest of the film probably will not (and should not) be nominated in other categories.
The fact that I feel this way is a huge disappointment to me.
I had high expectations for the film. First, I should explain that I watch for films set in the old west. Note that I do not call them 'Westerns,' which I will explain in a moment. When I first read that 'Hostiles' was coming, I targeted it as one film I most wanted to see. I looked forward to a film that perhaps did a little bit to address the cultural blind spot that has been our relationship with our Native American brothers and sisters.
I attended a screening set up for film industry people - at which I am certain I was the poorest person in the room - where the film was introduced by Writer-Director Chris Cooper, who directed one film I love, "Crazy Heart," with Jeff Bridges, and one I still haven't seen ("Blak Mass"), In his introduction Cooper discussed his inspiration for making the movie; "The racial divide in our nation," he cited, "which has only gotten worse since the 2016 election."
So, the rationale for making the film was clear; this was to be a movie about racial reconciliation, an uplifting, inspirational story that would address (indirectly, through 1800's western mythology) the possibility of racial healing.
Cooper also quoted the man he referred to as, "My mentor," the great Actor Robert Duvall. "The English have Shakespeare," Duval had once told him. "The French have Molliere. We in the United States have the Western."
I like and respect Robert Duval, but in the 21st century, I disagree with him about the Western as a genre. It is not our Shakespeare. Instead, it is an anachronistic, out-dated bastard genre that died in the 1990's, and was right to do so.
The vast majority of westerns, through the haert of its 'golden age,' (basically the whole of the 20th century) promoted and abetted a cultural genocide that still continues - despite the 'noble efforts' of films like "Hostiles" - and the film "Hostiles," itself, fails on many levels to deal with the core problems at the heart of the history.
History is where we should start. 'The Western' as a film genre is dead. Clint Eastwood killed it off with his 1992 film, "Unforgiven." In saying this, I want to be clear; Clint Eastwood killed off the genre in the best possible way; he recognized that it was a genre that had out-run its usefulness. The mythology had to be torn down. It had to be broken down into its realistic parts, and in doing so, its mytology would never be truly relevant ever again.
So, the genre is dead. All we have left is the history.
"Hostiles," then, cannot be viewed as a 'Western' film. It can only be viewed as a historical film, and as a historical film, it fails.
Being a writer who often has to deal with the Hollywood 'wisdom' regarding prevailing story-telling trends, I recognize the structure and intent of the 'Hostiles' script; personalize the grand issues. Bring it down to a personal scale. Turn the grand theme into one man's personal story.
So...we have a story about one man's change of heart. This is the character played by Christian Bale, and his performance in that context is good - very good.
On one level, it is a well written script. Structurally it is sound. The characters - not all of them....the WHITE characters - are well developed and 3-dimensional. And this is where the problems begin to arise.
In working so hard to develop Christian Bale's character, as well as Rosamund Pike's, Cooper succumbs to that most problematic trap that plagued the entire history of the western genre; he made the Native American characters two dimensional cliches.
As great an actor as Wes Studi is - and he has been my favorite Native American Actor for years - he is given the thankless job of portraying, and - as all great Actors do - developing through performance a thinly written, inconsistent character, who serves as a plot device more than as a fully developed character.
Let's start with Cooper's decision to call him "Yellowhawk."
There was a real Chief named "Yellowhawk," but Cooper's fictional character seems to bear little or no resemblance to the real historical figure, as far as I can research. So, why use the name? Because it sounds like a 'good Indian name' for a character? This smacks of cultural and historical appropriation of the most ignorant kind.
Next let's look at some historical misunderstandings in the film. The film is set in 1892. It is also established that our fictional Yellowhawk has been in prison for the past seven years. It is thus utterly impossible - and disturbing - that Cooper has two characters in a dialogue scene, discuss how Yellowhawk was at "Wounded Knee." This may seem like I'm nit-picking, but historically, you simply cannot get Wonded Knee wrong. It happened two years before our fictional story - in 1890 - and thus it is not possible for a man 5 years into a seven year jail term to have been there. In addition, this dialogue scene seems to suggest that Wounded Knee was a genuine battle, rather than the slaughter of mostly unarmed innocent civilians. I'm sorry, but Wounded Knee should be considered a fundamental moment in our nation's history, and should not be mis-construed for fictional purposes. It's that important a moment in real history.
Finally, I have to address another cliche Cooper falls into; the trap of 'good Indian' vs. 'bad Indian.' (As a side note; I will often interchange the use of the terms "Native American" and "Indian;" I do this in deference to my favorite Native/Indian writer, Sherman Alexie, who has written about growing up "Indian," "We're Indians," he has said, and I will continue to interchange the two terms unless and until instructed not to by someone I respct on the matter.) There are enemy Warriors in the film. They are the ones responsible for Rosamund Pike's character's presence in the film. They killed her family.
Wes Studi's 'Yellowhawk,' and his family play the cliche role of the 'Good Indians,' who end up tracking and killing the 'Bad Indians.'
I don't even know where to being with this. The 'Bad Indians' are given absolutely zero consideration as real people, by the other characters or, I hate to say it, by Cooper as the writer, himself.
In the end Cooper tries to write a story of personal redemption, as Bale's charater slowly comes to respect and appreciate 'Yellowhawk.' It attempts to be inspirational; we can all learn to grow in our love for those we thought were enemies.
But the historical license taken - which really seems to come from historical ignorance - gets in the way.
I had high hopes for the film, but I left the screening feeling a deep disappointment.
In this era of cultural awakening on so many different levels, across our society, it seems that our ability to come to terms with one of our most difficult historical blind spots, is still many many years from finding its real redemption.
January, 15, 2018
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