Clint Eastwood transformed the western with “Unforgiven,” a film questioning the genre’s moral compass.
“Hostiles” goes one step further for our PC age. Cowboys aren’t necessarily the heroes. And those “Indians” might just have a legitimate gripe against the White Man.
The western doesn’t sit back and coast on its modern-day sensibilities. It’s gritty in all the right places and features another fiery turn from Christian Bale.
Is he capable of giving anything less?
Bale stars as U.S. Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker, a warrior on the cusp of retirement. No movie character gets to hit that rocking chair without a hitch, right?
For Capt. Blocker his last mission makes him seethe. He’s forced to escort a dying Cheyenne warrior (Wes Studi) to his Montana home to live out his remaining days. It’s a thankless task for a man who spent his adult life slaughtering “savages.” He has no choice but to fulfill his duty. It won’t be easy, though.
Along the way Capt. Blocker meets Rosalee (Rosamund Pike), a widow struggling to survive after a brutal attack wiped her family out. She joins the Captain’s odd unit, pushing forward through terrain teeming with danger.
Bale makes every close up count. So does writer/director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) who brings a solemn touch to, well, everything. That’s especially true of our hero’s learning curve. It’s the heart of the movie, and yet the remaining pieces prove far more captivating.
Consider a subplot involving a troublesome soldier played by professional live wire Ben Foster.
“Hostiles” takes the western genre too seriously at times. The best westerns breathe more, luxuriating in their locales while still slinging the right amount of lead. Cooper’s film is dutifully shot, but there’s a heaviness here that no amount of gunplay can fix.
HiT or Miss: “Hostiles” worships at the western altar while reminding us of modern mores regarding the Wild West.
Talk about a creative minefield.
Anyone seriously tackling the Harding/Kerrigan kerfuffle might just crank out a glorified TV Movie of the Week instead. Heck, that’s already been done. “I, Tonya” strives for something different despite the tawdry setting … and characters … and sad sack assault.
That it succeeds is testament to a committed lead actress and a screenplay that knows the balance between parody and patience.
Margot Robbie dons Tonya Harding’s spangly leotard. She’s a tough-talking gal with a mom who would drive any daughter to distress. Allison Janney plays Ma Harding with a heart so cold ice would warm in its presence. She’s a spittle-flecked nightmare, but somehow Janney finds enough humanity for us not to look away in shame.
The same holds true for Robbie’s antihero. Poor Tonya has a hard life. Optimism is for other people. To hell with that, she says. She’ll just skate, and skate, and force her way into the rarefied air of Olympic Figure Skating.
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If only her sad sack beau (Stan Sebastian) could get out of her way. Jeff Gillooly is as overmatched by life as Tonya is. Only she won’t wave the white flag. It’s that journey, one betrayed by events too farcical to be false, that captivates us.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) doesn’t stick every landing. He trots out a framing device that feels half-hearted. Moments where characters break the fourth wall are similarly forced.
The black comedy oozes out all the same.
It happens every time Janney graces the screen. It also pops when Jeff’s co-conspirator (Paul Walter Hauser) appears. He’s half bodyguard, half international man of mystery. You’ll smirk at his every line reading and feel darn good about it.
FAST FACT: Tonya Harding briefly embraced a boxing career but stepped away for good following a 2004 loss to Amy Johnson.
It’s so easy to see where this could have spiraled out of control. Harding isn’t a typical heroine. Her flaws could fill a storage unit, but every time you expect her to buckle she stands tall … until her strength finally gives out.
“I, Tonya” scorches media irresponsibility but never enough to overwhelm the narrative. The skating scandal set the stage for O.J. mania as well as shows like “Hard Copy” which whacked more respectable outlets in the knees.
“I, Tonya” makes it all look so easy. Anyone who ever suffered through a paint-by-numbers biopic knows just how hard capturing the truth can be on screen.
HiT or Miss: Any film capturing the Harding/Kerrigan kerfuffle could easily go south. Not “I, Tonya,” a film as tough as its feisty heroine.