In 'Darkest Hour' and 'Hostiles,' the two actors excel as awards season kicks off

By Chris Nashawaty
September 04, 2017 at 02:20 PM EDT

In my first post from this year’s Telluride Film Festival, I focused on three films with stand-out performances from female actors: Emma Stone’s portrayal of the trailblazing Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes; Saoirse Ronan as a teen finding her voice in Lady Bird; and Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman who falls for otherworldly creature in Guillermo del Toro’s best-of-the-fest sci-fi fantasy The Shape of Water. Now, let’s take a look at a couple of leading man turns that are likely to end up in the Best Actor mix when Oscar season roles around.

First, as a caveat, let me be clear that I’m not an Oscar prognosticator. I’m a critic. I’ll leave the ins and outs of that particular annual horse race to my colleagues who track the shifting winds and tea leaves of Academy voters. But since Telluride has become such an influential launching pad for those films gunning for statuettes, it’s hard to be here and not get swept up in the handicapping. In the festival’s second half, there were two performances that I saw that knocked me out and I think are going to be undeniable contenders. The first is Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.

The film follows the pitbull British prime minister during one crucial month in the early stages of WWII. That would be May 1940, when the countries of Western Europe are falling like dominoes to the Nazis. Hitler’s invasion of France means that his next stop is Britain. And the country, under a failure of leadership, leans on the controversial and bigger-than-life Churchill. If you liked Dunkirk as much as I did, this will make a perfect companion film since it partially tells the story of that evacuation from the other side of the Channel, in the cigar-smoke-filled parlor rooms of Parliament and 10 Downing Street.

Jack English / Focus Features

By zooming in on one month of Churchill’s life, Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) is very much working in the mold here of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s painting a portrait of a great man by working in miniature. Darkest Hour isn’t quite as great a film as Spielberg’s, but it does have a central performance from Gary Oldman that will likely draw comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ as the American president due to how invisibly and seamlessly the actor inhabits and loses himself in the man he’s playing.

I’ll be honest, Oldman hasn’t been this good for a very long time. To be even more honest, he’s starred in a lot of junk in the past decade. But remember, this is the actor who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy and was so hypnotic (and often scary) in Prick Up Your Ears, State of Grace, JFK, The Professional, True Romance, Immortal Beloved, and The Contender. It’s both a relief and revelation to see him get the chance to swing for the fences again.

Like Day-Lewis in Lincoln, it takes about 30 seconds for you to forget that you’re watching an actor and just believe. Hidden under pounds of latex jowls, pear-shaped body padding, and flawless aging make-up, Oldman is Churchill. And not only the look, but the mischievous wit, the twinkle in the eye, the rousing oratory, and the crippling self-doubt when he most needed to project confidence. It’s remarkable. Over the years a lot of great actors, have tackled Churchill: Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Rod Taylor, Richard Burton, Timothy Spall, Bob Hoskins, and most recently John Lithgow in The Crown. But Oldman’s Churchill seems to go beyond acting into a sort of conjuring act. I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone else do Churchill this well again unless the man himself comes back from the dead.

As for the movie, it’s very good. But not quite on the level of Oldman’s squalling performance. Wright, a director I like, has a tendency to make films that feel a bit too painterly and self-aware. They seem to exist under glass. And you’re always aware of the director when you should be swept up in the story. Still, I liked it a lot.

Lorey Sebastian, Le Grisbi Productions/Waypoint Entertainment

The other acting performance that blew me away during the second half of the festival shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, any time Christian Bale is in a movie, it’s an event. He’s the rare actor who can say more with his eyes and facial expressions than most others can with the longest and most florid for-your-consideration monologues. And his work in Scott Cooper’s brutal and beautiful new Western, Hostiles, ranks with some of his best.

Cooper, the director of Crazy Heart and most recently Black Mass, teamed up with Bale once before in 2013’s little-seen Out of the Furnace – a harrowing movie that I adored and put on my 10-best list that year. Here, the two are working in a similarly dark key, but there are also moments of grace to be found too. I’m going to make a comparison to Dances with Wolves, but don’t let that turn you off – this film isn’t nearly as preachy, but it does touch on similar themes of racial hatred and eventual understanding between white men and Native Americans, albeit with a lighter, more artful and nuanced touch. Along with del Toro’s The Shape of Water, it was my favorite film at Telluride.

Bale plays Captain Joe Blocker, a haunted soldier in the untamed west in 1892. He’s a career officer famous for his ruthless and bloody subjugation of Native Americans. Then he’s assigned to take a dying imprisoned chief (Wes Studi) back to his Montana home where he can die on his native tribal soil. It’s a P.R. move, and Blocker wants no part of it, but he has no choice. With a small group of soldiers, he transports the chief and his family across the plains through deadly encounters, picking up a lone woman (Rosamund Pike, superb) on the way after her family has been massacred.

Shot in New Mexico and Colorado, the film is stunning to look at. But the biggest draw is watching Bale do so much with seemingly so little. Every gesture feels authentic and real. You immediately understand who this man is (for better and worse) and what he’s grappling with. I understand that Westerns are a tough nut to crack for some, but Hostiles is one of the finest examples of the genre since Unforgiven. And just when you thought that you’d seen every weapon that an actor like Bale had in his arsenal, he somehow manages to surprise you yet again.

Darkest Hour is out Nov. 22; Hostiles does not yet have distribution or a 2017 release date.

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