★★★ / ★★★★
The western genre is often romanticized to such an extent that it has gotten tedious and so it is a cold splash of water on the face when a work a comes along without the expected ornamentations. Instead, writer-director Scott Cooper focuses on the harsh trials of a journey and the people with harrowing histories who harbor deep and sharp prejudices. We wonder if, in the face of great adversities, external and internal, they would be able to put aside their differences in order to make it to where they need to be. More importantly, might a temporary armistice bring about a more permanent shift in one’s perspective?
As far as plot goes, it is typical in that a white man of rigid countenance must escort a person, or persons, of lesser power to a specific location, often across several states on horseback. Specifically, Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered by his superior (Stephen Lang) to take former war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to Valley of the Bear, Montana so the old man, imprisoned for seven years and now dying of cancer, can live his final days with his tribe as a free human being. Despite Blocker’s insistence that he is not at all the right person for the task because many of his friends were murdered by Yellow Hawk, the president’s wish is not a request. Tension builds as Blocker’s company dwindles due to ambushes and severe miscalculations.
This is a story about loss and the profound psychic gashes it leaves for time to heal over but not mend completely. I admired that the screenplay commands subtlety in reminding us that every character is hurting in some way, that there is no villain other than what we create for ourselves sometimes and how, compared to an external force, this ideation that we peel into and pick apart can be more devastating shall we allow it. It is surprisingly thoughtful in parts, particularly when a lieutenant (Jesse Plemons) opens up to a superior (Rory Cochrane) after a life-defining experience. Notice how this standout scene is drenched in shadows, right after the sun had just set. This smart eye for visuals coupled with its nearly glacial but purposeful pacing provide the viewer time to ponder and consider the film’s thesis.
Bale delivers yet another strong performance. I loved how he is able to tap into a rather stoic character and finds gradation within the quiet, reserved man who is a soldier through and through—even when he talks of retirement. When those eyes refuse to blink in order to get a point across, the camera remains still, staring back, daring us to wonder what Blocker might be thinking or which course of action he is about to take for the group. As characters enter and exit the story, Bale’s solid performance is rooted in the middle of it all and so we never feel lost despite the changing faces.
Another standout is Rosamund Pike who plays a woman whose entire family is murdered by a Comanche war party. While she has the showier performance, the power behind her presence and complex emotions complement Bale’s interpretation of Blocker.
“Hostiles” is not for everyone, even for the fans of standard westerns. But such atypicality is what’s exciting about it. The harsh wilderness is only one of the many elements that can kill a person. It also shows that time and life experience can render one so weak that there comes a point when a person is long dead even before he takes his last breath.
Jack Reacher (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
From several hundred yards away, six shots are fired and five people—four women and one man—drop dead. Everyone believes it is an act of random shooting by someone who has gone insane. The investigators, led by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), are in luck to have found a fingerprint on a quarter inside a parking meter closest to where they believe the sniper aimed for his targets. It belongs to James Barr (Joseph Sikora) who has conveniently fallen into a coma after fellow inmates almost beat him to death. Lucky for him, his request for a man named Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) reaches Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the District Attorney’s daughter intent on making sure Barr gets a fair trial, and Reacher pays close attention to the news.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, “Jack Reacher” is a slick and intelligent thriller that is bold enough to break its razor sharp tension from time to time and allow humor to seep through when it is least expected. What results is a thriller with a gravitational pull; one that is capable of smirking at its audience but it never gives the impression that it is above them.
The opening scene that involves the shooting and the resulting investigation are executed with confidence. Since not one line of dialogue is uttered, just sounds of the gun and images of people running away from danger, horror and curiosity are amplified. It allows us to ask questions not only about the shooter and his motivations, but also those performing the investigation. With the latter, smooth and consistent cuts are utilized. Since no one speaks a word, we do not get the feel of who they are and their methods. We see only the pieces of evidence that must be bagged. There is an immediate red flag. In good thrillers, finding straight-cut answers are almost never that easy.
Cruise employs his usual balance of charm and cold calculation, but this does not mean his techniques are tired. On the contrary, they are appropriate for his character, someone who has had extensive military experience, a ghost in a crowd of faces. Although the plot involves a mystery, Reacher is a curiosity, too. He is quick to put things together and even quicker on his feet. There is a discussion later on involving people who appear smart because they are so specialized in a task or field. Upon closer examination, they are not really. Their response times are just faster than everyone else because, in short, their minds function mostly through familiar patterns. Having not read the novels by Lee Child, I was genuinely interested in figuring out if Reacher was that type of person.
Humor takes center stage when Reacher interacts with ordinary folks, from guys who pick a fight in a bar to an old but spirited man (Robert Duvall) who owns a shooting range. I was tickled by the fact that they tend to underestimate Reacher, whether it has to do with his physicality or ability to logically sort through misinformation, until, of course, it is too late. I probably would have, too, given that the man wears the same shirt every day.
The sexual tension between Reacher and Rodin is uncomfortable but not in an enjoyable way. The manner in which the characters inch toward one another and then having to pull away feels too silly, tonally off, something from a bad romantic comedy. I would rather have seen them have a go at each other and later apply their complete focus and attention on the investigation. Because of this, the final third is disappointing. There is confusion: is Reacher determined to rescue Rodin because he has romantic feelings for her or is his drive mostly due to the remaining guilt from having failed to save someone else?
And then there is the mastermind of it all. This person gives a powerful speech about being a survivor, but we are not given a sufficient answer as to what exactly he or she hopes to benefit from the shooting. A line or two offers an explanation but it is almost too generic for someone who has gone through all the trouble.
Gone Girl (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel and screenplay by Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl” is a mystery-thriller that gets under the skin and into the bone, at times tickling the brain with its twists and turns alongside occasionally amusing one-liners, which makes the two-hour-and-thirty-minute peek into the lives of a suburban Missourian couple worthwhile. It is like watching a “Best Of” episodes of Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” only the film is directed by David Fincher which means darker elements are amplified and the ironic touches concentrated.
But the film is let down a bit by its unusual and ultimately ineffective casting of some supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris sticks out like a sore thumb as a former flame of Amy (Rosamund Pike) who may or may not have something to do with her sudden disappearance. Although Harris attempts a mix of danger, desperation, and coy—as if his character were in on some joke—I found his interpretation of the character to be quite distracting. Because there is a lack of an effective marriage between the performer and his character, just about every time he is on screen, I felt as though I was on the outside looking in rather than being cocooned in an increasingly complex and suffocating mystery.
Another misstep in terms of casting is Casey Wilson as the self-reported best friend of the woman who has gone missing. Although she is on screen fewer times than Harris, her interpretation of the character gives the impression that Noelle is supposed to be on a set of a comedy television show but somehow has gotten lost and ended up here. Granted, Noelle is, in part, supposed to be the “village idiot” but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character was written dumb but played smart? Contradiction, after all, is what makes the film function on a cerebral and, to an extent, a visceral level.
Fincher allows the mystery to unspool without the expected red herrings that usually come with the mystery-thriller genre. Instead, he employs his not unfamiliar signature of summoning basic elements of a dramatic film—in this case, a marriage drama—to elevate the tension during the exposition just enough and then eventually adding a number of jigsaw pieces onto his canvas in order to arouse our suspicions and inspire us to look a bit closer. In other words, he makes movies that slowly come to life and those willing to stick through the transformation are rewarded.
Ben Affleck is spot-on as Nick, the husband who becomes a curious specimen under the media’s microscope. Nick acts strangely because although his wife has disappeared, possibly dead, he does not know how to behave when the spotlight is on him. For instance, when photographers ask him to pose and smile in front of a missing person poster, he doesn’t even think twice about following through with the request—and what it might mean for him once the one perfect snapshot is published all over the papers and shown on national television. Thus, he gives the impression that either he does not care or he is a direct culprit. Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) certainly have their suspicions.
“Gone Girl” is a true cousin of Fincher’s other thrillers like “Se7en,” “The Game,” and “Zodiac.” Although never as dark as any of them, all four engage the viewers on a high level—to question not only what is really going on but also whether the final answer, or answers, is something that we really want to know. And just when we are convinced that the final layer has been peeled off completely, a movie as alive as this is already growing another stratum of skin cells, ready to be picked off.
Barney’s Version (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Mordecai Richler’s novel, “Barney’s Version” tracked the journey of a man from his first marriage with a woman he got pregnant (Rachelle Lefevre) until the end of his highly eventful life. Barney (Paul Giamatti) was in a quest to find love. He thought he found it when he met a woman with a Master’s Degree. She was vulgar but rich, sometimes charming, but insensitive to his needs. She didn’t like being talked down to but she was unaware of the way she talked down to Barney. On the night of his wedding, Barney met Miriam (Rosamund Pike), an intelligent, eloquent, and humble woman. Barney was convinced his second marriage was a mistake so he searched for opportunities to get divorced. Miriam didn’t want to be involved with a married man. “Barney’s Version,” directed by Richard J. Lewis, captured my interest and challenged my opinion of its characters because of the way it paid attention to its many complicated, at times volatile, relationships. Take Barney and his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman). While two shared more than a handful of amusing moments which often involved drinking and discussions of making love with as many women as possible, the screenplay surprised me because it wasn’t afraid to experiment with the atmosphere between them. When Barney needed advice, Izzy was there for insightful fatherly advice. They weren’t just father and son. They were also great friends. I also loved watching Barney and Izzy’s marriage unfold. The picture was fearless in exploring the awkward feeling of one perhaps thinking that he or she was putting more into the relationship that his or her counterpart. We don’t have to be married to relate. Since their relationship was based on friendship first, we can relate that feeling to our own group of friends. The film also succeeded in framing the unsaid: the struggle in the ennui of the every day, the craving for a bit of space because certain charming habits evolved into minor annoyances, and the expected level of respect when something is important to someone. Barney and Miriam were smart people. They didn’t need to yell or scream at each other to express their frustrations and disappointments. After all, empty barrels make the most noise. They knew neither of them was perfect so, when they faced a hardship, they took comfort in their love for one another. I did wish, however, that we learned more about Barney’s relationship with his son and daughter. Parents love their kids as much as their partner in marriage (or even more so) and I thought it was strange that there weren’t many scenes of Barney interacting with his kids. In a way, despite the ups and downs in his life, Barney was very lucky. He was not necessarily gifted in terms of physical appearance but he had everything he needed to lead a wonderful life. We watch him and are reminded that life is worth living with a glass half full.