Toronto: Christian Bale, Jessica Chastain Shine a Light on Treatment of Native Americans in “Hostiles,” “Woman Walks Ahead”

womanwalksahead_01Toronto International Film Festival

Before every public screening at TIFF this year, the person introducing the film made sure to thank the indigenous people of Canada for allowing them to stage a film festival on their land. If you looked around the theater, the likeliness of actually seeing any of the country’s original inhabitants was rather unlikely, yet two movies at the fest tried to commemorate the Native Americans and the way they were treated.

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles and Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead premiered on consecutive nights, and if you happened to catch both of them, you’re likely to have been impressed by how much production budget you can get by filming in America’s great outdoors that’s still untouched by technology. Both stories are set within a couple years of each other in the 1990s just to further contrast.

Based on the screenplay by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), Woman Walks Ahead is a fictionalized account of New Yorker Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who traveled to North Dakota solely to paint Sioux Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). The painting actually exists but what transpired between the two of them is fictionalized, even though it happens at a time when the U.S. government was cutting off provisions to Native Americans to force them to sign an unfair treaty. The juxtaposition of these two elements is what makes White’s film so effective.

Written by Cooper based on a screenplay by Oscar winner Donald Stewart, Hostiles tries to be more of an old school Western with the simple story of a beleaguered military man, Christian Bale’s Captain Joseph Blocker, who has been ordered to transport the imprisoned Cheyenne Chief Yellowhawk from New Mexico back to his home in Montana since he’s dying of cancer.

Before we even get to Blocker’s journey, we watch Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman living with her family in a cabin in the middle of the frontier, teaching her young daughters about adverbs mere moments before her entire family, including her baby son, are killed by Comanche. Of course, Blocker and his small group will come upon Rosalie and take her in as they travel across the country.

hostilesTIFFToronto International Film Festival

There’s no denying that Cooper is a fine director, one that is likely to some day be hailed as one of America’s greats, but he has made a movie that makes Martin Scorsese’s Silence seem like a laugh-a-minute romp. The movie he’s made is so grim and moves so slowly it’s hard to even enjoy its gorgeous look or filmmaking.

Woman Walks Ahead is a far simpler story focusing on the relationship between Catherine and Sitting Bull, and it’s done in a way that feels authentic rather than relying on Hollywood tropes. At the same time, it deals with what the Sioux and other tribes dealing with pressure from the government to sign the treaty, two stories that are blended quite effortlessly in Knight’s script.

What makes Woman Walks Ahead so special is Jessica Chastain, who brings a warmth and heart to the movie that’s sorely lacking from Hostiles. Watching Chastain in this film after seeing her performance in Molly’s Game is a revelation. In Aaron Sorkin’s film, she’s tapping into her male side to keep up with the sheer masculinity of that film. In White’s film, she’s bringing a much-needed femininity to a world filled with men, including Sam Rockwell and Ciarin Hinds as two of the soldiers against her getting so friendly with Sitting Bull.

Rockwell and Hinds are very different soldiers than Bale or the others we see in Hostiles, who are broken men due to the amount of violence they’ve witnessed and committed themselves in the war with the Native Americans. We’re reminded of this so many times just in case we were dozing off earlier in the film, which is more than likely due to the snail’s pace.

Rosalie’s arc in Hostiles is never believable as you watch her driven crazy by witnessing the death of her family then days later forget all about it and get cleaned up for the long trip ahead. When she’s given the chance to settle down somewhere along the way, she instead decides to go along with Blocker for reasons that are impossible to understand. And of course, they start getting closer as the journey continues even though they’ll face more challenges.

One of their new problems is another soldier, played by Ben Foster, who has been convicted of murder and has to be taken to be tried. You can probably guess where that subplot is going.

womanwalksahead_02Toronto International Film Festival

In Cooper’s story, Bale and Pike end up getting romantically involved, but Woman Walks Ahead never goes there, maybe because that would be the most obvious thing to do in a Hollywood movie. Michael Greyeyes’ performance as Sitting Bull opposite Chastain is as equals in their many scenes together, and it’s actually a relief that they don’t get closer, which would be much more likely in their situation.

In Hostiles, the characters are mostly stereotypes and each of them are given “moments” to try to make more out of them. Every word and line is uttered, sometimes mumbled, so slowly to try to make very word stand out and seem more important, although the screenplay is fairly pedestrian. There’s also a lot of flagrant overacting in scenes where subtlety often works better. As much as Cooper was obviously trying to make a movie that pays homage to the Native Americans, it instead focuses so much on the white people in the story the Indians end up being little more than window dressing.

Hostiles is certainly a beautiful looking film in terms of the landscapes and environment, but White gets that same production design by nature for her film without making it the star of her film. There’s also something in the way Brits Knight and White tackle the story of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull as outsiders that allows them to be far less biased about one side or the other.

Neither Hostiles nor Woman Walks Ahead have been picked up for distribution at the time of this writing, but I expect the former will be a lot more expensive pick-up than the latter.

Anyone who happened to catch Woman Walks Ahead at TIFF may wonder why it’s mostly been ignored by the media so far. Hopefully, it will find an empathetic distributor who understands there’s an audience for learning about the treatment of the country’s Native Americans in a way that’s also sympathetic to them, which Hostiles most definitely is not. Cooper’s film varies so wildly between the bombastic and the mundane, it just leaves you angry.

  | East Coast Editor
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Still quiet here.sas

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