Thursday, February 1, 2018

Willard Goes West

It's refreshing at a time when Hollywood can't stop congratulating itself on its progressivism to see an uncompromising look at the era of the Indian Wars. As the War Nerd so aptly put it, the First Peoples of the Americas and those 19th Century Americans were engaged in a war of extermination on both sides, with no quarter asked or given. That people speak English and Spanish in New Mexico rather than Comanche or Apache has nothing to do with who was right or wrong but simply who had the industrial base and the birthrate.

Hostiles kicks off with this cold, clear view of the Old West right away with a Comanche gang massacring Rosamund Pike's homesteader family. It won't be the last time she's brutalized in the course of the film and it sets a very deliberate formula for the ensuing two hours: people are cruel, there are no heroes, and gunfights are a matter of sheer dumb luck.

It's a far cry from the usual genre fare at the multiplex and thank Christ for that. I blissfully skipped the latest Star Wars and Marvel film and all those other Disney properties, opting instead for something both old fashioned and on the bleeding cultural edge.

The Western is really the quintessential American movie genre - and it still reflects the cultural zeitgeist even with all the changes from Unforgiven on. The old adventure pictures with noble white hats battling dastardly black hats reflected a popular imagination embracing the post-war vision of a nation as a global leader, the wide open plane representative of the potential and optimistic future just as much as science fiction's rocketry. Now, that plane is just as wide but reminds us how small we all are, how weak and mortal in the face of this great big world.

That old fashioned terror gets a good workout with Pike as she goes from getting massacred to kidnapped and raped to just the generally crummy life on the trail in late 1800s America. She's really the core of the film, emotionally and thematically, even though much of the actual plot revolves around Captain Joe Block chaperoning a dying Apache chief to his ancestral burial ground. It's forty miles of bad road, as Cameron said of Aliens, but much further than that and with fewer respites from the elements or - the greater threat - other human beings.

These sorts of travelling narratives are common - it makes up half of The Lord of The Rings - but many of those embody the threat of the open road in some persistent antagonist, always nipping at the heroes heels until the climactic battle just as they finish their journey. Hostiles has no such over-arching conflict because that sort of thing never happens in our dreary Real World. If it's not Comanches it's poachers, if it's not poachers it's some Army sergeant gone rogue. Or it's just the punishing rain. By the time Block is facing down the gun-toting libertarians - who sneer at his presidential order, proudly racist but happy to shoot other white men over their God-given property rights - you can feel not just his weariness but his bitter incredulity at these constant hurdles. "Great, now this..."

Block himself is just as far from the traditional Western hero as the film is from any redemptive message. Played by Christian Bale with the sort of big filthy mustache they only had in those days, he's much less the gunslinger than the morally apathetic veteran of a counter-insurgency war with no end. Captain Willard on the river, knowing damn well if they search the local's sampan they'll have to kill everyone. But where Apocalypse Now was still enamored with the American Dream and how it supposedly died in Vietnam, Block is on the front lines of the dirty wars that carved a United States out of the wild and free North American continent. He's right there where the Good Old Days were born and it's the bloodiest birth since the aforementioned Alien franchise.

A contrast to Block appears at times. Soft-hand intellectuals and bureaucrats from the East Coast, bleeding hearts for the poor put-upon Red Man. What might have been a reactionary's dichotomy is muddier though, as these are the same pillars of civilization who dispatched soldiers like Block to the Indian Wars in the first place, now full of sympathy and sentiment since the poor put-upon Red Man doesn't look like a threat by 1892. Not to the big cities at least. Most of the serious things never register with the cities, which is how climate change is already sinking Miami into the Atlantic.

But Hostiles admirably does not stake out a morality one way or the other. Comanches massacre the farmers, soldiers torment and murder Apaches, it's a Shankill road gang fight played out across sagebrush and valleys. Hostiles feels like a longer movie than it is but it's a rare case of this being a good thing. It brings you closer to the psychology of the characters, whose common humanity is ground downward with every passing mile by such common human cruelties, until the brutality of everyone from the soldiers to the Native tribes is comprehensible. It's not so much some innate or socially normative evil as just frustration, lashing out in ever more gruesome ways because why the hell not? Screw it, burn the world and God too.

It was the best time I've had at the cinema since Get Out.

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