By Subhash K. Jha
Film:Hostiles, Director:Scott Cooper, Cast:Christian Bale, Rosemund Pike
Outwardly, like most films of the ‘Western’ genre, “Hostiles” is a celebration of savagery. It opens with a disturbingly graphic sequence of Rosalie’s (Rosemund Pike) entire family, including three little children, being massacred by American-Indians.
However, it ends rather unexpectedly with the same distraught widow leaving the site of savagery with the only surviving member of an American-Indian family.
In that union of two survivors of a mutual massacre there resides a deeply moving statement on what violence has done to civilisation from the time Man invented the Gun and even before that when swords and knives served the purpose of violence.
“Hostiles” shows why hostility is not a desirable state of existence.
This is done in the narrative through some virile scenes of violence that end in a sense of guilt-stricken waste. We are sickened not so much by savagery as the sense of wastage and nullity it leaves behind.
At its heart this is also a melancholic meditation on loneliness and love. It is in the eyes of the very amazing Christian Bale.
Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a veteran soldier of the American Army at the end of the 19th century, who is given the unpleasant journey of escorting a dying American-Indian chief (played with marvellous tranquility by Wes Studi) and his family back to his usurped land.
The screenplay, brilliantly opaque and yet prismatic, thus becomes a meditation of lineage, cultural assimilation and anti-violence.
There are many patches of excruciating lucidity in the narrative where we get an impression of how exhausting and frustrating a life of violence can be for a civilization hell-bent on domination.
The film is a sum total of many conflicting emotions. As it stresses on the violence that streaks across the rugged landscape, it also seems to recoil from that climate of brutality and barbarism into which the characters of both the native American population and the white-skinned Americans have been thrown.
Neither side wants this savagery. Not in the way the plot pitches them as comrades in grief. The villains, in typical Bollywood style, are the irredeemable savages who enjoy hurting and killing.
In this way the narrative sharply deflects the onus of the violence away from the film’s pivotal characters who are pitched against one another.
Presiding over this deeply contemplative study of history’s most unfortunate throwbacks, “Hostiles” gathers its strength from Scott Cooper’s sturdy screenplay, Masanobu Takayanagi’s supremely evocative cinematography which sweeps across the arid landscape searching for alcoves of solace.
Most of all this film derives its strength from its central performance. Christian Bale as the lonely desolate conflicted Captain makes us believe in the healing power of compassion without ever trying to make morality seem like a manipulative machine.
Bale makes every other actor(barring the stately grief-stricken yet dignified Rosemund Pike) pale in comparison. Timothy Chalamet garnering global wah-wahs for “Call Me By Your Name”, appears for a fleeting period, hastily exiting so that the decks are cleared for the mature men to have their say about what it means to be caught in a crossfire of brutality while the soul pines for just a warm embrace.
This is a film that left me in a ruminative after-shock. How can any film so violent be so gentle and calming?