Western-ish. Films reviewed: Lucky, Hostiles, Sweet Country

Posted in 1800s, 1920s, Australia, Indigenous, Movies, Music, US, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

If the western seems like an old, tired genre to you, there are some new movies you should take a look at. They reinvent the western by changing key elements and points of view.

This week I’m looking at three new movies that are westerns (or at least western-ish). There’s justice in the outback, a northbound trail, and a lonesome cowboy in the great southwest.

Lucky

Dir: John Carroll Lynch

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a very lucky man. He’s 89 years old, smokes a pack a day, lives on milk, coffee and bloody mary’s – and not much else – and is still in perfect health. He’s a crotchety old coot who wears cowboy boots and a straw hat. He lives alone in a small town in the great southwest, amidst giant Seguara cacti and hundred-year-old tortoises. He likes yoga calisthenics, mariachi and crossword puzzles. He hangs out at the local diner by day and at the corner bar at night. So why is Lucky so sad?

The other day he fell in his kitchen for no reason. His doctor says that’s just what happens when you’re old. This makes Lucky reexamine his long-held attitudes and his stubborn ways. But can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Lucky is a nice and gentle look at an old cowboy in a multi racial southwestern town. It’s an arthouse film, full of music, stories, and funny, quirky characters, (played by David Lynch, Tom Skerrit and others.) It also functions as a tribute to Harry Dean Stanton himself, who plays the music and provides the backstories for the anecdotes Lucky tells. Stanton died earlier this year, but the film is less of an epitaph than a wry celebration of his life.

I like this movie.

Hostiles

Wri/Dir: Scott Cooper

It’s the 1890s in New Mexico. The Indians have all been killed or jailed under an army led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is widely known for his fighting prowess and his cruelty – they say he’s scalped more natives than anyone. So he’s surprised when the President himself orders him to protect and accompany his sworn enemy on a trip to Montana. Blocker fought and jailed Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) a decade earlier. But now the Chief is dying of cancer and wants to be buried in his ancestral lands. Blocker sets off with the Chief, his family and a squad of soldiers. On the way they meet Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) a dazed mother still holding a dead baby to her breast. Her entire family was wiped out in a Comanche raid a few days earlier. She joins the group. The Chief offers to help them fight the Comanche but Blocker doesn’t trust him – he keeps him shackled to his horse. Is the enemy of his enemy his friend? But as the soldiers travel ever northward they begin to understand their captives, and overcome the fear, bigotry and hatred that killed so many.

Hostiles is a good, traditional western, shot against breathtaking scenery. It’s a bit slow, and there are way too many long-winded apologies as each character asks for forgiveness when he confesses his crimes. (One dramatic mea culpa would have been enough.) Though told from the white point of view, it is sympathetic toward the plight of First Nations. It satisfies as a Western with the horseback riding, shoot-outs and lots of dramatic tension. And Christian Bale makes a great silent soldier who sees the light.

Sweet Country

Dir: Warwick Thonrton

It’s 1929 in Northern Territory, Australia with three homesteads not far from a small town. They’re owned by whites, but worked by aboriginal families. Sam (Hamilton Morris) works for a kindly preacher (Sam Neill); Cattleman Archie (Gibson John) is indigenous but comes from far away. And mixed-race kid Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) lives near — but not with — his white father.

In comes Harry March, a deranged WWI veteran demanding some “black stock” – how he describes aboriginal workers — to repair a fence. Sam and his family volunteer, but March gives them no food or money for their work, and then sexually assaults Sam’s wife.

They flee back to the preacher’s house, pursued by March, armed and dangerous. Sam defends himself but ends up killing March, a white man (as secretly witnessed by Philomac). So Sam and his wife flee into the bush pursued by a posse that includes Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Archie as their guide.  The sergeant is the de facto law in these parts and plans to lynch Sam whenever he finds him. But things changes when Sam ends up saving the Sergeant’s  life and turning himself in. Then an actual judge shows up to conduct the trial. But can an Aboriginal man receive justice in a white, frontier town?

Sweet Country is an excellent western set in 20th century Australia. It gives a raw and realistic look at brutal racism and frontier justice. It’s also a subtle examination of identity, and the uneasy give-and-take among the different aboriginal groups, the white settlers and their mixed race descendents.

I recommend this movie.

Sweet Country won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice.

Lucky starts today in Toronto, check your local listings, with Hostiles opening later on. You can catch Sweet Country on Thursday, Oct 19th at the Imaginenative film festival. Go to Imaginenative.org for show times and tickets.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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  1. […] playing at Canada’s Top Ten festival; go to TIFF.net for details. Also opening today is Hostiles (read my review here) and My Piece of the City  (listen to my interview with director Moze Mossanen […]

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