Tagged: Western genre

Hostiles (US 2017)

Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), looking glum – as they might in the circumstances

Sometimes I feel sorry for film reviewers. If you have to respond with a tight deadline to watching a film like Hostiles it must be very difficult. Here is a film which is beautifully presented with some excellent performances but also with a very iffy script and some equally questionable didactic urges. Do you slam the film or try to justify it? An experienced reviewer like Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound (January 2018) can just about get away with a negative response slightly sweetened by discussion of the good points. But I’ve also seen some 10/10 user reviews on IMDb. I confess that I was a little suspicious when the ads for the film in the UK quoted glowing reviews from several publications I didn’t recognise.

Fortunately, I don’t have to score the film. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I think it’s doing and what the problems are. However, I am intrigued by the US companies who financed this $40 million independent film. It was picked up by Entertainment Film Distributors for selected UK multiplexes but I fear that its pacing alone will deter the popcorn crowd.

Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk tries to give advice about dealing with Comanche rebels

The first issue with the film is its location in the history of the West and the Western. We are supposedly in 1892 in New Mexico, which seems rather late to be dealing with Comanche rebels and a journey to escort a Cheyenne warrior and his family from prison in the South West to his homeland in Montana after seven years in captivity. The prisoner is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has terminal cancer and the escort is to be led by a reluctant veteran ‘Indian fighter’, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) on a last mission before his retirement. Soon after the party leaves the fort, they come across Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of a raid by those Comanche rebels on a settler family’s homestead. The party will gather (and lose) members as it encounters various groups on its way to Montana and a final showdown. The party that left the fort included a ‘Buffalo soldier’, another hard-bitten Indian hunter, a raw French recruit and a greenhorn Lieutenant – a generic grouping for a Western narrative. The whole set-up seemed wrong in terms of historical period to me and when I came across some pre-publicity for the film which dated the events as 1882 that made more sense. To put this in context, the major battle of Little Big Horn and its consequences covers the period from 1876 to 1881 (the Northern Cheyenne fought with the Lakota of Sitting Bull). After that the focus on the final acts of the Indian Wars was on the Apache and the tribes of the South West.

Rosalee (who has lost her family to Comanche rebels) becomes protector of Cheyenne women and child

But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Much more important is the exploration of the guilt of the coloniser which in this film seems to be represented in ways which are perhaps easily dismissed as anachronistic. Several of the (white) characters seem to perform an abrupt volte face, switching from hatred of ‘savages’ to true respect for Cheyenne culture. These questions are the fulcrum for readings of the film which veer from condemnation for being too politically correct and turning away from the genre towards being accepting of our contemporary views and a denial of historical perspective. The film takes itself very seriously and is in many ways wedded to gloom. It begins with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the American soul – “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” (Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923). Characters discuss their faith and one concludes that “God is blind” to what has happened in the West. Before I saw the film, somebody described it as violent. Many people are killed in the film, but not as many as in some other Hollywood action pictures. It is the film’s own seriousness (emphasised by sparse and spare dialogue and a Max Richter score) which gives the deaths a proper importance in the narrative.

The film is written, directed and produced by Scott Cooper. I did see Cooper’s first film, the country music romance Crazy Heart (US 2010), but not his next two, Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015). Reading reviews, it would appear that Cooper is interested in strong character-driven narratives with a measured pace (Cooper was first an actor). He certainly uses genre narratives but appears not want to consciously work with or against genre expectations. On this basis, the meaning of Hostiles is to be found in Christian Bale’s character (Bale was also the lead in Out of the Furnace). But in relation to a genre as deeply embedded in the American psyche as the Western, Bale’s character is inevitably going to be read in terms of specific earlier Westerns and their characters. On this score, Cooper, in an interview with MovieMaker magazine seems to be confused in his understanding of the Western and what he is trying to achieve (though the interview is not well sub-edited):

I don’t think much in terms of genre . . . while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple of shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.

It’s that last part that baffles me. Perhaps he said “Conrad not McMurtry or L’Amour”, since the latter are two of the best-known writers of Western novels.

The five soldiers who start the journey. “Who will survive?” might be the genre question.

At this point I should state that the real strength of the film is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi who worked on earlier films by Cooper and also Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner. Here in an interview he recounts how he and Cooper worked only on location and how he changed film stock to deal with dramatic changes in weather conditions. The results are stunning and they immediately lead us to think about Anthony Mann Westerns and possibly the Peckinpah of Ride the High Country (1962). But as Cooper suggests, the central emotional trigger is John Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Cooper even goes as far as claiming that the end of his film in some way responds to the famous ending of The Searchers. I won’t spoil what happens in Cooper’s film. It is interesting, but doesn’t have the power of Ford’s ending. Ethan Edwards is one of the great creations of the Hollywood Western. As Martin Scorsese says about him, he’s not a villain but he’s despicable. Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche is deeply rooted but it is accompanied by cultural knowledge about his enemy. He can keep his anger under control when faced with Martin Pawley and his own niece Lucy, both of whom are ‘tainted’ in his eyes by their links to Native Americans. But control is not enough to allow Ethan back into the American family/community. He remains as the French title of the film suggests, a ‘Prisoner of the Desert’.

Here is what Cooper says about his narrative (the script was worked up from an original by Donald E. Stewart, a well-known screenwriter who died in 1999:

I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.

Blocker at the Cheyenne burial ground. Like Ethan Edwards, he knows something of his enemy’s culture – and his language

Ethan Edwards in 1956 was a complex character stirring up questions about race and racial difference in an America still to experience the full force of Civil Rights. Bale’s Captain Blocker faces similar questions in 2017 when America is a very different (but still conflicted) society. I don’t feel that Blocker, as written, can carry or express the emotions that Cooper has in mind. Here is a final extract from Cooper’s interview, in response to those comments about the violence in the film:

. . . the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny.

‘Manifest Destiny’ was the belief in the United States that ‘Americans’ (i.e. of white European stock) were destined to spread across the United States, settling the land and creating a free society which persecution had denied them or their forefathers in Europe. This would inevitably mean annexing the lands of Native Americans. Ironically, in 1892 when Captain Blocker’s orders come directly from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, the Republican platform for the November presidential election re-affirmed a belief in that ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was beginning to fade. The Republicans lost the election but returned in 1896 when the ‘Western frontier’ was effectively ‘civilised’. American expansionism then turned overseas to the Spanish-American Wars and the pursuit of American power across the rest of the Americas.

I think my final thoughts are that Scott Cooper may be sincere in what he is attempting, but that he is trying to do too much and perhaps he needs to spend more time watching Westerns. But then is possibly better to attempt too much rather than to succumb to the limited aims of much of contemporary American filmmaking. I was never bored by Hostiles and those landscapes are amazing. The trailer below does include a ‘Searchers moment’ and some of the terrific ‘figures in a landscape’ cinematography.

Wind River (US 2017)

Grahame Greene and Elizabeth Olsen

I think I must be in the prime target audience for Wind River. It certainly ‘works’ for me but I’m a little wary of certain aspects of the narrative – so, a good film to write about? The film’s pedigree is good as written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose earlier writing on Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) was certainly appreciated in these parts. It also has a strong cast, music by Nick Cave and a snowy landscape (Utah masquerading as Wyoming). It also has antecedents. The idea of a murder investigation on Native American lands was explored in Thunderheart (US 1992), directed by Michael Apted and including in its cast Graham Greene (Canadian First Nations actor) who repeats his role as a tribal police officer in this new film. Jurisdiction on land designated for Native American tribes is a complex business and that becomes one aspect of this story alongside the familiar issue of indigenous peoples and how they suffer through poor education, lack of employment opportunities and loss of cultural identity. A third element that features strongly is the potential ecological/environmental damage to the land via oil exploration and wildlife issues.

The narrative sees an 18 year-old young woman dying as she runs barefoot through the snow on a winter’s night. The explanation of how cold bursts the blood vessels in the lungs and causes the victim to drown in their own freezing blood is a lesson I won’t forget. But what has caused her to do such a thing? She’s found by Cory Lambert, a wildlife ranger played by Jeremy Renner. The local tribal police chief who is, coincidentally, Cory’s father-in-law, does not have the manpower or authority to conduct a murder investigation, so the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands via the Department for Indian Affairs, is called in. When she arrives, agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from Fort Lauderdale via Las Vegas is certainly unprepared for what she is expected to do.

What follows seems like a carefully calculated attempt to cover the bases and confront the issues. The choice of Agent Banner by the FBI seems not to be thought through – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s relatively young, doesn’t know this kind of territory and its culture and is poorly equipped for outdoor work in freezing temperatures. But the decision does open up several narrative opportunities. She can easily offend people, not through malice but through lack of specific experience and knowledge and she needs to rely on the help of wildlife ranger Lambert. Lambert knows the territory, the snow hazards and the people – and he’s closely connected to the victim’s family. He married into the community and his backstory is skilfully woven into the narrative. But he is a white man whose status still raises questions. Against that, one of the most affecting scenes sees Lambert and the dead girl’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water) in one of those almost silent intimate male relationships found in the best Westerns.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) with Martin (Gil Birmingham) who has invented his own warpaint since he’s forgotten the old ways?

I was struck by how much the narrative reminded me of Indigenous Australian films and I’m sure there are Canadian narratives that cover similar issues. The policing of these communities is problematic. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I did find the long final sequence (or rather the penultimate sequence) slightly disappointing in the way the murder mystery was ‘solved’. All the performances by the leads were good, though the heavily typed secondary characters were just too predictable in their behaviour. Andy Willis at HOME in Manchester told me he thought Renner’s role was Nietzschian with its emphasis on survival and the kill or be killed philosophy. I can see this and I was also concerned by the presumably legal killings of predators that Lambert is required to carry out as a ranger. (Wolves are being re-introduced in many parts of Europe but Lambert is sent out to dispatch the wolves on Wind River reservation for killing a steer.) The narrative also seemed to suggest connections (direct or metaphorical) between the animal predators that Lambert shoots and the humans who pose a threat to Agent Banner. I’m still trying to figure out what worries me about this but I guess it’s that everyone in the territory seems to have guns (and often high-powered automatic rifles) and the assumption that a wildlife ranger (or a police officer) can use a gun with so little obvious regulation or restraint. Having said that, the UK government sanctions killing badgers when scientific opinion says it achieves nothing.

Is it a Western? I think so, yes. It’s a ‘contemporary Western’ but I’m not sure it is a ‘twilight Western’ since it has a very different kind of narrative structure and set of characters. In some ways it is quite a traditional Western story as oilmen from Texas arrive on Native American land in Wyoming – and a loner, the hunter, has to deal with them. The revisionist twist is to add the female FBI agent.

Wind River has been widely praised and in the UK it has been a surprising success on a limited release. It is distributed here by STX Entertainment, a new name in cinema for me but I see that in North America it has been active in cinema and TV distribution for a few years. It has significant Chinese investment and is targeting growth in East Asian markets. In the UK and Ireland, Wind River is one of its first releases and the release pattern seems to have been idiosyncratic – in some chain multiplexes, but not others. Even so the film reached the Top 5 in midweek, suggesting a skew towards older audiences. It’s worth keeping an eye on STX I think.

Two Men in Town (Fra-Bel-Algeria-US 2014)

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The French Maghrebi filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb made two films in the US following his first film in English (with a fair bit of French) London River (France-Algeria 2009). This remake followed Just Like a Woman (2012) and has received a similar response in the US to that for Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009) – bafflement at the arthouse approach to what seem like US genre stories. The difference here is that Bouchareb has not adapted an American story but has instead transposed a French original to New Mexico.

Deux hommes dans la ville was a 1973 French film written and directed by José Giovanni. It starred Alain Delon as a man released from prison partly because of the work of a social worker/parole officer (Jean Gabin). The two men develop a relationship outside prison but the ex-convict’s attempts to go straight are caught between a vengeful police inspector (Michel Bouquet) and his former criminal colleagues who want him to rejoin the gang. I haven’t seen this original film so I’m unsure of the details but this sounds like a classic noir/polar. Giovanni was himself an ex-con and he was a highly respected writer of polars, one of which was Classe tous risques (France-Italy 1960). His scripts were also used by leading directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Becker.

Here’s the trailer for the original (out in North America from Cohen Media). Don’t miss the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu:

Rachid Bouchareb adapted Giovanni’s script for the contemporary US with his regular collaborator Olivier Lorelle and a new collaborator Yasmina Khadra (like Giovanni working under a pseudonym – Khadra has political ambitions). In Bouchareb’s version, the convict is William Garnett, a local boy who killed a sheriff’s deputy. Played by Forest Whitaker, he converts to Islam in prison and is released on parole after 18 years. On release he is placed under parole officer Emily Smith, played by Brenda Blethyn (the lead in London River). She is a stern, ‘no nonsense’ but generally fair and progressive officer. Unfortunately Garnett is released locally (as per local custom) where the sheriff, Harvey Keitel, remembers the death of his deputy and is determined to put Garnett back behind bars. Garnett’s criminal connections from his youth are represented by Luis Guzmán‘s ‘Terence’, now a local hood engaged in criminal activities that cross the border.

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

As in Tavernier’s American film, the strong cast and setting (New Mexico desert landscapes) promise something dramatic and spectacular, but here the story – a character study drawn for a polar in France – is perhaps just too alien for American audiences. The assumption must be that Bouchareb is interested in all the problems and the possibilities that arise in border communities. Race, religion and politics all impinge on the central narrative in quite complicated ways. Garnett finds love quite quickly after leaving prison – with a Spanish woman. Keitel’s sheriff is a civic leader welcoming a returning soldier from Afghanistan at a celebration. He’s also quick to stamp down on local vigilantes who have illegally ‘arrested’ Mexican migrants but then intimidates Garnett quite unreasonably and seemingly encourages his deputies to do the same. Bouchareb also throws the audience by introducing Garnett’s mother at one point – played by Ellen Burstyn. We wonder how she met Garnett’s father and what life was like for the family as her son grew up.

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The strength of the film drama is to be found in the use of landscape. I was interested to find out later that it was photographed by Yves Cape whose credits include several of the French films I admire, including White Material (France 2009) by Claire Denis. It was also an interesting decision to provide Garnett with a second-hand motorbike as his means of travel to work (a Triumph Bonneville?) – the images of him riding to work at a cattle ranch with Éric Neveux‘s excellent score mixed with the ambient sounds of the desert are evocative of a wide range of films.

The film narrative opens with a murder which takes place in extreme long shot much like the celebrated scene in Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) and it is only later that we realise that this is a flash-forward to the last scene of the film.There is relatively little action in the film, although when it does come it is handled well. Most of the drama comes from the character studies. It is a formidable cast, especially with that fine actor Brenda Blethyn. I’ve no idea where her accent suggests that she comes from, but she is a compelling character. Whitaker is shown with a neatly trimmed hair style, suit and heavy-framed glasses that make him a dead ringer for Malcom X and emphasising that African-Americans have converted to Islam in prison since the 1950s (confirmed by Bouchareb in the French Press Pack). His new Muslim identity is evident throughout and causes some bemusement for his workmates, but this is not an easily typed identity for him – nor for them. At the point of release Garnett is visited in prison by an imam and throughout the film we see him at prayers. Only one person directly insults him. There are stand-offs between Blethyn and Keitel and a sad story about another of the parole cases – both of these incidents point to problems with the parole system. Bouchareb is interested in the psychology of the characters and the pressures of society rather than genre conventions – though he recognises that he is attracted by the Western. He tells us he did a considerable amount of research on the border migration issues and spoke to law enforcement officers and parole officers in New Mexico.

The only real problem I had with the ‘bare bones’ DVD distributed in the UK by Signature Entertainment was the lack of subtitles. Like many modern films, the ‘realist’ dialogue is sometimes hard to follow and I would have appreciated English subs for the hard of hearing. In addition there are a few scenes in which Garnett and his lover (Dolores Heredia) speak in Spanish. Not understanding these lines completely didn’t really spoil the film for me but the lack of subs does indicate the way the film was ‘dumped’ on the UK DVD market (with no cinema release). I think the American Region 1 DVD does have subs.

As a French-Maghrebi director, Rachid Bouchareb offers a possibly unique take on the American border/migrant story, though he does join other European directors such as Tony Richardson (The Border 1982 – also with Keitel) and Louis Malle (Alamo Bay 1985) as well as US ‘independents’ such as John Sayles (Lone Star 1996). I think Two Men in Town (awful title!) deserves to be seen. I think I’ll watch it again. Two Men in Town is one of those films which, if you set out to denigrate it, is a soft target. (See this Variety review which does an effective hatchet job.) But if you give it a chance, it will grow on you through landscape and performances. Yes, it does attempt to be a modern day Western like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (France-US 2005) – but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the US trailer for the 2014 film. It includes some SPOILERS – but also a nice shot of Brenda Blethyn as John Wayne from The Searchers (or ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ as it was in France):

Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014)

A great composition and seemingly generic. But not quite the Rockies?

A great composition and seemingly generic. But not quite the Rockies?

Slow West is beautiful to look at. It includes several stunning set pieces and it is well-researched and carefully prepared – but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t quite produce the coherent narrative I was hoping for. Perhaps the main issue is whether or not this is ‘a Western’? There has been plenty of critical weight behind Slow West including a piece on the ’10 Great Modern Westerns’ by the BFI and the implication that Slow West belongs in such company.

John Maclean was previously a musician in The Beta Band and he directed the band’s videos. One of these was seen by Michael Fassbender and eventually Fassbender appeared in two short films which both won prizes for Maclean. Slow West, written and directed by Maclean is his first feature. Maclean’s parents are both well-known visual artists and he studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. It’s not surprising then that there are some wonderful compositions in Slow West. With the highly talented Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, Maclean is also served by a marvellous use of natural light. There are several scenes in the film I would like study in detail once it is available on DVD.

The film’s story involves a quest by a teenage Scots boy Jay (played by the gangling Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the girl he loves whose family has been ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. He believes she now lives in Colorado with her father. (Jay claims to be the son of ‘Lady Cavendish’.) At the start of the film’s narrative we meet Jay in a forest clearing in the first of many dangerous encounters. He’s rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced but clearly suspect ‘drifter’ (the character repeatedly refers to ‘drifting’ and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter may be a reference). The rest of the narrative takes the pair through a series of other similar encounters until it reaches the inevitable climax. Maclean also uses flashbacks and dreams experienced by Jay and voiceovers offering forms of narration by Silas. Maclean’s musical background means that there is an appropriate score composed by Jed Kurzel, the Australian musician who also scored The Babadook, plus a campfire song written by Maclean himself.

Apart from a few scenes in Scotland, most of the film was shot in New Zealand. Many critics have suggested that the setting could easily be the Rockies and that audiences won’t notice. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the story could have taken place in New Zealand anyway and still allowed Maclean to make all of the points he wants to make (i.e. about racism, colonialism, violence etc.) – ‘Westerns’ have often been set outside North America. It’s certainly the case that everything in the film could be an element in the repertoire of the Western. Maclean has done his research and he is aware that until recently Westerns were more mythological than realist. He wants to emphasise the various European migrant groups in the American West in the late 19th century, the ‘real’ Native Americans etc. – though I’m not sure about the three musicians from Francophone Africa (French imperialism in Central and West Africa was mostly later than 1870). According to this Guardian online piece by Rowan Righelato, Maclean himself has described his film as “an existential European road movie”. That seems a pretty good description for the overall ‘form’ of the film. It seems to me that although all the Western elements are ‘authentic’ they don’t all fit together either as a realist historical drama or as a traditional Western genre film. I’d be interested to see what academic scholars of the American West make of the film. Reviewers seem to refer to the setting as ‘1870’ but if this information was conveyed in the film (perhaps a date in a newspaper?) I missed it. It is clearly ‘post’ Civil War but some of the incidents suggest earlier or later periods – and different locations.

A father-son relationship?

A father-son relationship?

Does all of this matter? Probably not or probably only if, like me, you are expecting a Western. The Western was once the American genre par excellence and whatever the ostensible narrative intentions, Westerns always conveyed something about American myths and changing ideologies as well as broad statements about the history of the frontier. Even the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s conveyed something, perhaps more than before, in their discourses about the end of the West and the corporatisation of Western activities. I’m not sure that Slow West tells us anything apart from its fairly universal story about a young man’s dream and an older man’s survival instinct. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in this case Maclean’s film is entertaining and its relatively brief running time (84 minutes) is packed with sounds and images to stimulate. Nick, my viewing companion did also question whether the script did enough to establish the relationship between the two central characters, citing the shaving scene. Are we meant to think of a surrogate father/son relationship? Michael Fassbender will attract many audiences to the film and he gives a strong performance, but I wonder if in this case his star persona is too powerful for the overall balance of the film, especially with his cigar-chomping flashing smile?

Reading through the reviews and audience comments I think that Slow West is being enjoyed in much the same way as the Coen Bros. films – and enjoyed in terms of its dark humour and intelligence.

On a technical note, Robbie Ryan’s images are presented in the old European ‘widescreen’ ratio of 1.66:1. I’m not sure why and because I saw the film in a real cinema with proper tabs and masking I didn’t really notice. But it looks great.

A short clip from the opening sequence in the film: