Is Ben Affleck a good actor? He is, right? He’s certainly a “movie star,” and so I guess he benefits from that, because being a “movie star” is generally enough to trick people into thinking someone is a good actor. (Mark Wahlberg is probably the best example of this phenomenon.) But there’s a gravity to Ben Affleck, to his scowl, to his herky walk, to that just-crooked-enough smile that makes me believe he’s genuinely good.
He was obviously brilliant as the dumb-but-loyal-and-secretly-insightful friend in Good Will Hunting. And he was wonderful in The Town, where he got to play an unflinching, smart, tough, handsome bank robber who quietly had a caramel core, which is exactly the kind of role he was built to play. And he was great as the cocky protégé in Armageddon, and, even if you think that movie is dumb (it is) and bad (it is not), there’s no way to argue that his final scene with Harry isn’t dazzling and superior.
I mention Ben because he was the third person I thought of after watching Hostiles, a new Western starring Christian Bale (he was the second person I thought of) and Rosamund Pike (she was the first).
Pike, a British actress who is becoming an indispensable modern talent, was in 2014’s Gone Girl with Affleck, and she absolutely obliterated him (and everyone else) in it. She was a true force; she put together this very charged, very unnerving, expertly paced character that nobody had ever seen before. (It’s her eyes that pull the trick off. She made them look a million miles deep and also totally and entirely empty, which had an oddly unsettling effect. More on this in a moment.) It was, no arguing, one of the finest acting performances of the year, and it rightly earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. (The award went to Julianne Moore for her role in Still Alice. Moore is an unmistakable master, always, and even when she’s being silly she’s still remarkable, and I’m of course talking about her turn as a villain in the Kingsman universe. But Pike’s performance was an all-timer. That trophy belongs on her mantle.)
Do you remember when Pike was in 2012’s Jack Reacher? She played a defense attorney who mostly spends the entire movie being surprised by things and people and realizations. One of the instances, which happens after realizing that things are far more complicated than they’d originally seemed, stretches out for nearly 20 seconds, which is honestly kind of unbelievable. This is the meat of it:
Those are the eyes I was talking about earlier. They’re big, but not too big. And they’re dark, but not too dark, because they’re also bright, but not too bright. They’re her best weapon. She wasn’t quite able to get control of them here (or in any of Jack Reacher, or in Wrath of the Titans, which also came out in 2012, or in any of the movies she was in before that, for that matter), and that’s why the scene seems so silly. But she was able to in Gone Girl, and it was extraordinary and why she ran away with that movie, and I have some good news: She does it again in Hostiles, and it’s in an entirely different way (this time it’s as a reaction to massive trauma), and it’s still extraordinary.
***If you’ve not yet seen Hostiles, I would recommend you do not read the remaining 800 words of this article. It will spoil the beginning of it, and you really need for the beginning of it to be a surprise. Otherwise, the rest of the movie won’t have quite the momentum it needs to be successful.***
Hostiles begins with Rosalie Quaid (Pike), a wife and mother, teaching her two young daughters what an adverb is as they sit at a kitchen table in their peaceful, charming, tranquil frontier home. Her infant son is asleep in a bassinet nearby, and her husband is out front sawing a giant piece of wood for whatever it was that men were sawing giant pieces of wood back then. It looks, by all measures, to be an exactly perfect day; a beautiful family enjoying a beautiful day together, just one of what would surely be many to come in their years ahead together.
Two minutes later, her husband gets shot with a bullet and then pierced with an arrow and then scalped in front of her and their children by a Comanche war party, and then each of her children, including the infant she is holding (!), gets shot and killed too as she tries to lead them to escape into the woods behind their home. She manages to make it there herself and hide, and as she does so she stays holding her murdered baby and it’s just a very crushing, impossibly cruel scene. She lays under a thicket and one of the men chasing her is standing just a few feet away looking for her and she won’t let herself cry or even breathe, but she will let her eyes sort everything out. This is just a screenshot of the part when she’s listening as he walks through the brush behind her, but you can still feel that panicked energy she’s trying so desperately to quiet so he doesn’t find her:
The next time we see Rosalie, it’s when Bale (who plays Joseph Blocker, a grizzled and war-ravaged captain in the military who gets tasked with having to lead a group of prisoner Native Americans back to their tribal lands) happens across her burned-down home. She is sitting inside next to a bed, the bodies of her two daughters lying on it covered head-to-toe under a blanket, her dead son still in her arms. “Shhhhhhhh,” she says to Blocker as he walks in with his gun drawn before he can say anything to her. “Shhh. They’re sleeping.”
It’s a heartbreaking thing to hear her say, and there’s no real way for me to write this without it sounding at least a little bit odd, but: Pike is perfect as Rosalie in that moment; she is surrounded by death and catastrophe of the highest order, obviously broken and completely shocked, and it all feels exactly true and real. It’s her posture, the timbre of her voice, the way her face looks like she’s been sitting there with them for days, no food or water, only despair. All of it.
As the movie moves forward, so too does Pike’s Rosalie, and we watch her as she absorbs the impact of everything (there is more bloodshed, more death, more assault, more devastation), and the whole time she just streams out all of her emotions and her anti-emotions through her magic eyeballs. It’s an expert move, really, the way she plays it. She’s the best part of the movie. She steals it, same as she did with Gone Girl, except this time it’s from Christian Bale, which is a far more difficult task, especially when you consider that Christian Bale’s best performance ever was in a Western (3:10 to Yuma), and so we were all expecting the same kind of performance from him here. (And to be clear: Bale is very strong in Hostiles. It’s just that Pike is better.)
Hostiles ends with Rosalie sitting on a train, a new son next to her (it’s a long story, but the gist of it is she ends up essentially adopting a boy because all of his family members get killed), and her staring out of the window. She’s watching Blocker as he walks away, and for all the world she’s using every last bit of cosmic energy she can muster to get him to turn around and get on the train with them as it pulls off. When it seems like that’s failed, you see the hurt rush across her face, and, finally, for the first time in the movie, she averts her gaze, closing her eyes and letting her head fall. Of course, the trick of it is that Blocker eventually does come back (he pokes out from around the corner, watches the train for a moment, then walks over to it and climbs onto the last car before anyone notices). But it doesn’t matter. Rosalie doesn’t really need Blocker, same as Pike didn’t really need Affleck or Bale. They needed her. She was the star. She is the star.