Although Telluride is most definitely not a film market, occasionally producers will bring a big distributor-less movie here to at least try to set the table for a sale at Toronto the next week, in hopes of staging a last minute entry into awards season. That is the case with writer/director Scott Cooper’s brutally beautiful new western Hostiles which rode into friendly territory this weekend with its director and stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi. Bale even got a Telluride tribute (actually two, since honorees have to sit through it twice over the weekend).

This is Cooper’s fourth film after Black Mass and another Bale collaboration after Out Of The Furnace. His first film, Crazy Heart, was ironically a very last minute entry into the 2009 awards race but eventually picked up Best Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Song Oscars. Among distribs who saw Hostiles over the past couple of months is Fox Searchlight which released Crazy Heart and rode it to Oscar glory. I am told they are among those closely watching the audience (generally strong)  and critical response (generally good) in order to decide if they should give it a whirl again this filmmaker.

The studio has a full house this fall with four films already but no Best Actor possibilities, and that is something Bale could provide, with his brooding, soulful and enormously effective lead performance as an Army captain in 1892 who must transport an old Indian enemy (Studi) back to his tribal home. Along the way he picks up Pike, who has lost her entire family to a vicious Indian attack. The whole thing is pure and respectful western cinema and Cooper absolutely  knows what he is doing in this milieu. It also has some strong socially conscious themes running through it that will help it speak to contemporary audiences whether they are fans of the genre or not. It helps to have Bale on board who is comfortable in this environment, having previously been seen in the well-received 2007 remake of 3:10 To Yuma.

Westerns like this aren’t necessarily in favor anymore (Dances With Wolves triumphed at the 1990 Oscars), but for me they are always welcome especially in the hands of someone like Cooper who clearly has an affinity for the classics from the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

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Although Cooper told me at last night’s dinner reception for the film that Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven was an inspiration, this movie is closer kin to films like Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers with John Wayne. In fact Cooper has at least three shots that might best be called an homage to The Searchers, and anyone who knows that film will recognize them right away.

Ironically The Searchers was completely ignored by Oscar, as was the 1959 Hawks classic Rio Bravo, but both those gem have stood the test of time, even as new entries in the genre are rare, at least on this scale (a reported $55 million budget). It  might stand out for the Academy looking for something a little different. Certainly Bale (who impressively learned to speak Cheyenne for it, and the gorgeous cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi could find their way into the race should a distributor go for it – and who knows how much further the film could go? The movie was shot in New Mexico and nearby here in Colorado and for me ranks as the ideal Telluride movie, a natural here where it fits like a glove.

Hostiles

Producer John Lesher says he is working on getting this film a home but didn’t give details. I talked to some of the distributors in town about this rare Telluride sales item. One indie with lots of recent Oscar success says they saw it a couple of months ago and weren’t interested, not the right fit for its slate this year. Another veteran distributor, always with something in the Oscar race, was interested but told me they would definitely not make a deal if the requirement was for a release in 2017. That seems to be a sticking point, but maybe not for Searchlight, which has been down this road before with Cooper, and also released Lesher’s Oscar winning Birdman. Annapurna, after a disappointing run this summer with their big 2017 Oscar hopeful Detroit, is rumored to be in the mix as well and could probably use a movie that might score with an Academy full of filmmakers likely to love this kind of highly cinematic piece.

Bale, who brought his whole family with him, told me the Telluride experience has been the best he’s ever had at a festival although he hasn’t spent time here watching movies (other than his own), but instead taking the kids on outings to nearby surroundings. He’s been having a great time in a little respite from preparing to play Dick Cheney when he will reunite with his The Big Short director Adam McKay. He was in the Oscar race for that movie two years ago, and of course won Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for The Fighter .

And as for Cooper, regardless of what fate lies in store for Hostiles, he is prepping his next film about James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He says it will be perhaps his most challenging yet, certainly something different for the actor-turned-director than his first four films. Incidentally he told me the two beautiful young girls who play Pike’s daughters at the beginning of the film are actually his daughters. Pike was so impressed she asked Cooper if one of them could join her next film. He turned her down, effectively killing off their immediate movie careers as surely as their characters in this film.