“Hostiles” takes a hard – and compassionate – look at the American West
Updated: May 10, 2018
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2018; R for strong violence and profanity; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “A Journey of the Soul: Making of “Hostiles””
PRODUCER/WRITER/DIRECTOR Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) always wanted to make a Western. He was determined it would be on his terms, too, with “real relevance to what’s happening in America today,” he says in the three-part, 60-minute “Making-of” documentary.
A grim tale of hate and forgiveness, “Hostiles” is set in 1892 America. It features astonishing photography from Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, which was captured mostly in natural light in the New Mexico high desert and the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado. Based on a manuscript from the late screenwriter, Donald E. Stewart (Oscar winner “Missing,” 1982), Cooper says the storyline has a universal theme of unrest that could have taken place “in the African Congo in the 1930s, or Vietnam in the ‘70s, or the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan in 2011.”
His biggest challenge was to stay away from the cinematic treasures of yesteryear. “I easily could [have mined] the works of director John Ford, Howard Hawks or, more recently, Clint Eastwood” – masters of the American Western.
U.S. Cavalry Capt. Joseph F. Blocker, played by Christian Bale, is only months away from retirement. He has served most of his military career during the Indian Wars, but is now ordered to escort Northern Cheyenne War Chief Yellow Hawk, played by Cherokee actor Wes Studi (“Dances with Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans”) from an Army jail to his ancestral homeland in Montana. It’s a public relations gesture; President Benjamin Harrison signed the order, a mark of compassion for the chief, who is dying of cancer. Yellow Hawk and his family, including son Black Hawk played by Adam Beach (“Flags of our Fathers”), have been behind bars for seven years at Fort Berringer in New Mexico.
“We know what mistreatment we’ve afforded to the Native Americans.” – Scott Cooper
A gut feeling drew Bale to the project. “It was something you wanted to get obsessed with and that you’ll be interested in the duration of filming.”
English actress Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl,” “Pride & Prejudice,” 2005) may not have been the obvious choice to play American homesteader Mrs. Rosalee Quaid, who loses her family to a Comanche raid in the opening scene. Cooper said he was drawn to her “emotional IQ” and fresh eyes to American West.
Blocker and two of his men find her inside the family home holding her dead baby. Her older daughters lie lifeless in their beds, with her husband face-down out front, an arrow in his back.
Cooper and Producer John Lesher made sure the Native American characters were authentic. Two Cheyenne consultants were on the movie set every day, plus a Comanche, providing details that Cooper’s research alone would never have uncovered. The Native America actors and Bale spent weeks fine-tuning their Cheyenne dialect spoken throughout the film with subtitles.
The script shows different sides of the Native American struggle. The Comanche’s were known to be the fiercest of Native America warriors; they showed no sympathy to anyone outside their tribe, Cooper says. He also shows the Cheyenne culture. “They were known as a very kind and pacifist culture, who only resorted to violence when pushed to the very brink,” he says. “I wanted to show how they were so poorly mistreated for hundreds of years.”
Native American scholar and consultant Joely Proudfit, Ph.D. gives the writer/director high marks for his openness and commitment in giving the Native American characters “an authentic voice.”
Mastered in 4K, Lionsgate’s “Hostiles” verifies how a movie captured on 35mm film (2.39:1 aspect ratio) with an anamorphic lens can produce an amazing visual experience – especially in those grand, sweeping vistas. The exposed negative is slightly larger than standard film producing a sharper image.
The 4K/HDR toning provides a completely different look. Exposed at a darker level, big, billowing clouds have a more ominous appearance, while allowing just enough light to see the actors’ faces shadowed under their hats. Most days, Takayanagi did not use extra light for scenes filmed during the day, at least 80 percent of the film. Large reflectors bounced light toward the actors.
For interiors and campfire scenes, lighting was minimal, giving the impression of a single candle or fire. Powerful, photographic portraits of Native Americans and the West from the late 1890s into the 1900s by Edward Curtis inspired the look.
Earth tones dominate and look richer and deeper, with a slight post-production color adjustment to the warm side to reflect emotional cues.
The 4K sharpness exposes the natural film grain at an elevated level. Takayanagi uses film stock with heavier grain and contrast during the first act, and a more refined film with less grain as the journey heads to Montana.
The 4K and Blu-ray both feature a striking six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack. Gunshot effects ricochet around the room, while a touching, minimalist score from composer Max Richter enhances mood. Richter uses deep percussion and a sparse cello, with bursts of violin, and moody piano chords. English and Cheyenne dialogue is clear and understandable.
“Hostiles” may be too violent for some. Still, Cooper has given the American Western a shot in the arm through “Hostile’s” characters, story, and cinematic experience captured on traditional 35mm film mastered in 4K.
Let’s hope it will be an inspiration to other studios to release Western classics on 4K: “Silverado,” “Tombstone,” “The Searchers,” “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “True Grit,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Mask of Zorro,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid.”
― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer