A Million Ways To Die in The West


Versatility. Range. To me, these are the hallmarks of great acting – and they have served Christian Bale (The Big Short) well, from The Fighter to American Hustle. Hostiles marks his return to the Western, his first since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. One would hope that the genre has evolved enough to be devoid of stereotypes, while maintaining historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t sacrifice artistic merit. Hostiles didn’t break new ground within the genre, but emotional dramatic turns from Bale and co-star Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) make it a worthwhile film.

Set in 1892, the film depicts a rough and tumble American landscape of centuries past. Bale stars as Joseph Blocker, an Army captain tasked with a final mission before retirement, which he begrudgingly accepts. He must transport a dying Apache chief and his family back to their home state of Montana, as the elder is riddled with Cancer and has been granted mercy to die on his homeland. Violent and racist, Blocker’s visceral contempt for Native Americans could not be more obvious, and he pleads in futility to be excused from the mission. His superior officer ignores those complaints, and Blocker leads a small party of soldiers in the transport of Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, A Million Ways to Die in the West) and his family, including his adult children and grandson.

Historical accuracy is important, and while it is true that some early Native Americans terrorized White settlers expanding West, it is equally true that White colonizers terrorized the indigenous populations already here. Be that as it may, the film did an effective job in its first act, presenting both sides of a philosophical coin in its depiction of brutality. In a riveting opening scene, a Comanche tribe descends upon a family to steal their horses. They slaughtered them all, save for Pike’s character Rosalie, now a grieving mother and widow. Blocker and company encounter the woman en route, and she joins their small, weary procession.

Hostiles is quite simply a movie about a journey from point A to point B. The strength of the film is in the richness and depth of the characters and the performances. The Captain is a figure whom you can’t quite root for or against. Initially Blocker is cruel, failing to see the humanity in his charge. However, in moments with the soldiers under his command and in his interaction with Rosalie, we see genuine affection and tenderness, a reminder of the complexity of human nature and the duality that lies within all of us. He is an effective leader, engendering loyalty that is met with a deep and loving gratitude. As they encounter peril in their journey, circumstances force Blocker to amend his dealings with Yellow Hawk and to forge a new, albeit begrudging respect as they face a common enemy together.

An air of sadness hangs over the film, giving it a somber tone throughout. I was moved by its theme of reflection, as several characters bleakly assessed their own careers and lives, burdened by the weight of loss. I was particularly struck by a poignant scene between two lieutenants, as the younger (Jesse Plemons, The Post) reflects on his first killing. The contrast between the two men was powerful, the older immune to regret over certain lives but not others. This emotional compartmentalization exemplified the cynicism of war and of life generally, and it was portrayed beautifully.

My critique of the film boils down to a matter of taste, of whether or not one can get past the limitations of the genre and the fact that it isn’t a “feel good” movie.  Hostiles was a fine film, featuring another excellent performance by Christian Bale, and a rich emotional turn from Rosamund Pike, which may be enough for some moviegoers.

Grade: B+

Mad Max: Fury Road

Wow. I saw Mad Max: Fury Road about a week ago and as time passes I like it more and more. The trailer mildly intrigued me with its eye-popping cinematography, bolstered by the promise of Tom Hardy (The Drop) and Charlize Theron (A Million Ways To Die in the West), both of whom have been impressive in action-packed roles. I was just a little shorty doo-wop when the 1985 iteration of Mad Max was released, so I’d never seen the post-apocalyptic desert tale. Sci-Fi is not my favorite genre, but it felt lazy to just dismiss Fury Road as being similar to the explosive tripe we’ve come to expect from Michael Bay recently –although there was no shortage of explosions. Undoubtedly this movie won’t be for everyone, but it was a weirdly awesome treat, a beautiful, minimalist non-stop ride.

Mad Max was unique in that there was little dialogue and not much overt plot development. A few early, key scenes clued me in to the overall plot, and the rest of the movie just flowed naturally from its initial premise. Hardy stars as the titular Max, while Theron is Imperator Furiosa, aligned with the evil Immortan Joe, a ruler who emerged after an apocalypse decimated the earth leaving only sand behind. Fuel and water are at a premium, and Joe lords the precious commodities over the poverty-stricken lower class. Joe enslaves the people he rules and even those he holds closer, having a harem of young women with whom he procreates.

When Max escapes Joe’s clutches, he sends his gang of minions out to retrieve him. Furiosa has been dispatched, but inexplicably veers off course. The rogue Furiosa and desperate Max become unexpected allies, both railing against crippling oppression. Furiosa has Joe’s harem in tow, liberating the young women while searching for her homeland, a utopia known as the Green Place, where water and life abound. The movie is largely one big pursuit, as Max and Furiosa traverse a vast stretch of desert, beautiful while reflecting the barrenness of the times.

Mad Max was intense, characterized by the stark punk rocker imagery of the characters and their desperate, survivalist behavior. It was a visceral experience with nary a moment of calm. There were no lulls in the movie, and my senses were assaulted for nearly two hours. Director George Miller masterfully depicted futuristic warfare while employing modern twists on traditional elements of the battlefield. During the Revolutionary War, colonial soldiers may have marched forward while sounding a war drum or bugle. Here, Immortan Joe employs a rocker affixed to the front of his vehicle, shredding away on a blaring electric guitar. Awesome.

Here, the landscape was just as much of a character as Max and Furiosa. The setting was one of the most stunning aspects of the film, and there was a weird paradox at play. The desert shows no sign of vitality. Yet it’s coppery beauty was something to behold, utterly mesmerizing. If you think weird is good, this is the movie for you. There was literally never a dull moment, and I felt like I got my money’s worth. It was a visual treat not to be missed. Grade: A