Director / screenwriter Scott Cooper doesn’t believe in off-camera rehearsals. He’ll block out a scene loosely with his d.p. and the actors, but he wants the first performance captured on film. And I do mean film. “I’ll shoot on film until they tell me I can’t,” Scott tells Backstory magazine interviewer Jeff Goldsmith after a screening of Hostiles I attended at LA Film School.
Cooper doesn’t even believe in table reads. It gives the producers a chance to second guess things. Whatever his method, it allows for some powerful performances. Cooper made a big splash directing Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in Crazy Heart. With Hostiles, the period story of a US Army captain ordered to escort a former Cheyenne enemy chief to his Montana homeland, there are again Cooper-directed performances in the conversation.
Christain Bale, as the captain, and Rosamund Pike, as a woman who witnessed her family killed by a renegade band of bandits both get big acting moments of the kind that have drawn awards. Bale, as the lead of the film, is all meaningful grunts. I wish his character’s arc from hatred of the chief (Wes Studi) to grudging respect had been a more carefully drawn. I also wish the movie was either from more of the Native American perspective or didn’t seem to absolve the atrocities committed by the US Army.
Cooper’s script adapts an unpublished manuscript from the late (great) Donald E. Stewart. Although it is set in the American West, it has unmistakeable resonance with the present moment’s wars, which Cooper said was quite intended. The story has too much both-sides-ism for the present cultural moment, which I’m guessing will keep it from the marquee awards categories. If the Native characters had been allowed more screen time and #bigactingmoments, it might be a different story.
Beyond acting, the guild categories are a better bet. The production design, by Donald Graham Burt, evokes the late 1800’s in an unflashy and lived-in way and the grand American landscapes are photographed beautifully by Masanobu Takayanagi. Perhaps the best aspect is the carefully attention to Cheyenne language and custom appropriate to the time. There is not an award for cultural recreation, sadly.