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Two Films for the New Year: The American Western Revived and a German Crime Drama

They used to be standard fare in movie houses: “classic” Westerns, typically featuring laconic heroes, stoic sidekicks, cavalry units, Indian attacks, ladies in distress, exquisite photography of handsome scenery, plaintive sound tracks, etc….  They don’t make ‘em like that anymore—except they just did in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles,” and, in displaying all of the above elements, the film can stand proudly among its many forebears (now in theaters, the film is rated “R” and runs 134 mins.).

The time is 1892 at Fort Berringer in New Mexico territory. Tough-as-leather Army Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), near retirement, grudgingly takes on the assignment of escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to die in his tribal land in Montana. Yellow Hawk has been imprisoned at the fort for several years with his family, including son Black Hawk (Adam Beach). Blocker, a fierce Indian fighter, resents protecting a figure he regards as a vicious enemy, but he’s forced to undertake the task, which is immediately complicated when his small band runs across a traumatized widow, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who has lost her husband and children in a vicious Comanche raid on their homestead.

The dogged journey (captured in vivid landscapes by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi) is initially punctuated by personal and philosophic exchanges between the stern Blocker and his team, including veteran comrades like Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors), but it is interrupted by vicious encounters with Indians, bandits, etc. It’s one dang thing after another…

Yet the telling of this Western saga is done with such panache and understated elegance by Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) and his cast that it carries you along on this trek and makes you believe its sturdy storytelling. The trail rhythms and incidents are strongly etched and, indeed, classic. The violent elements—there are plenty, fully earning its “R” rating—are brutal, but quick, not lingered on or romanticized and fully believable in context. The hint of romantic sparks between Blocker and Quaid are just that, hinted at and not overplayed. Reticence and respect rules this relationship.  The resentful Blocker gradually softens and comes to appreciate his Cheyenne charges (who also hate Comanches) but gradually, plausibly, as part of a unit that has withstood trials together.

Christian Bale, an actor for all seasons and a Brit who has spent half his career playing Yanks, pulls off another adroit and convincing characterization as the taciturn captain, a man who bears—with bristly beard and drooping ‘stache–a 19th century face, one that does a lot of his acting silently, just listening to the people around him.  Not to be outdone is Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”), also English, who morphs convincingly from a bloodied mother in shock to a proper, well-spoken lady of the best moral stature—who can use a rifle!

John Ford himself might have approved of “Hostiles.”

Diane Kruger (right) and Denis Moschitto in the trial scene from “In the Fade,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In the Fade
One of the more prominent current faces of European film is Fatih Akin, a Hamburg-born son of Turkish immigrants. His films as writer-director have typically treated the intersection of German and Turkish life in striking ways (see “The Edge of Heaven,” “The Cut”), but his newest film, “In the Fade,” takes a more domestic tack by concentrating fully on one German character (though with a cross-national partner) and embracing a wholly German cultural and political environment.  This effort has resulted in a picture that many German authorities have indicated is their best this year: the film is the country’s official entry in the Academy Award sweepstakes (Rated “R,” “In the Fade” runs 106 mins. and opens in DC at Landmark E West End on February 2).

“In the Fade” (titled in German “Aus dem Nichts”) is mostly a taut thriller set in contemporary Hamburg. Its story turns on Katja (Diane Kruger) a tough-minded and headstrong woman who is committed both to her ex-con Kurdish-German husband Nuri (Nurman Acar), and their sweet violin-playing son Rocco.  However, early on in the film she witnesses their murder in a Neo-Nazi terrorist bombing of her husband’s tax office.  She finds herself bereft, facing both her own grief and some menacing probing from legal authorities about her own and her husband’s backgrounds.

Katja must undergo a grueling investigation of the case—where suspicion falls on Nuri himself—followed by the fraught trial of the suspected bombers, a smarmy young couple of radical bent (Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsdorf).  Under some duress, she is also called upon to testify. Though her case is capably represented by her family friend and lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto), the prospective terrorists are exonerated through the resolute machinations of the pair’s persistent (and threatening) defense council (Johannes Krisch). Katja is crushed and, at her wit’s end, begins to think about enacting her own personal revenge, first tracking the malefactors and then pondering how to confront them to finally assuage her angst.

After an effective buildup, the film’s last chapters are its weakness: practical Katja being transformed into an obsessed and intrepid stalker lacks credibility, and the finale seems facile and unbelievable given the film’s overall earnest tome. Subtleties are lost.

German-born Diane Kruger is known as a glamorous and versatile actress on both sides of the Atlantic.  She has been a pretty face in epics (“Troy”) and in American fluff (the two “National Treasure” films), played tough on US cable TV (in “The Bridge”) and provided a sultry presence in international films like “ Joyeux Noel,” and “Inglourious Basterds.” “In the Fade” offers her a chance to perform in her native German for once and to stretch her acting range, both as a flawed character and as a reluctant seeker of vengeance, and she mostly pulls it off (she won a Cannes Festival award for this role).  For director Akin, he shows he can pull off an effective crime procedural—but only up to a point.


Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.

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