Monday, October 17, 2016

Hell or High Water: A Review


Hell or High Water brings to mind many other films, particularly No Country For Old Men.  It covers similar territory both geographically (both take place in West Texas) and themes (older law enforcement officer tracks down criminals).  Unlike No Country For Old Men, I actually liked Hell or High Water.  Sometimes things go a little awry, but on the whole the film works both as commentary on the financial woes of average people and a character study on its subjects.

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is facing tough times on his West Texas ranch.  His recent divorce and the cost of caring for his recently-deceased mother has left him pretty much in debt, so much so that the Texas Midlands Bank may take it.  His brother, ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) has come to help Toby, but that help involves robbing said bank with small denominations, stealing just enough to literally pay the bank with their own money in order to keep the ranch.  While Toby is a reluctant participant in this endeavor, he does go along with it, seeing it as the only way to raise the funds quickly.  He needs to hold onto the ranch so as to keep the oil rights to the Texas Tea that has recently been discovered there, which will help Toby's estranged sons gain a fortune. Tanner, for his part, just loves robbing banks, and is clearly in his element.

Into this mix comes Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), for whom this string of robberies will be his last case before finally retiring.  He's not looking forward to retiring, seeing it as almost a death sentence.  His half-Indian, half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) tolerates Hamilton's faux-bigotry, knowing that it is more irascibility and displeasure at leaving the Rangers than any real animosity that drives Hamilton's rather brusque manner and questionable comments.

Hamilton is a shrewd customer, aware of how his robbers think, and sees a pattern: small-town Texas Midland Banks and even gauges a motive (the correct one).  Putting his hunch on the line, he stakes out one of the few TMB that hasn't been hit, convinced his thieves will strike it next.

Unbeknown to the Rangers, the brothers have headed up to an Oklahoma casino for the dual purpose of laundering the stolen money and gain more through the gambling.  Toby is still a man wrestling with his conscience, but Tanner has little if any to worry himself over, down to having no problem having sex with the casino hotel's desk clerk while Toby is in the very next bed.

Back to Texas for one more hit, which will allow them to get enough money to pay the bank.  The brothers hit another TMB, though not the one Hamilton and Parker were at.  Hamilton was proven correct in his theory, just not in the location.  As they race towards the other town, the Howard Brothers come across a crowded bank...and some armed civilians.

This IS Texas, after all.

Tanner kills the guard and a patron, but as they escape they find themselves being chased by other townsfolk in their pickups, armed with their own guns.  Tanner pulls out an automatic weapon to chase them away, and the brothers split up, though Toby is wounded in the chaos (both physically and emotionally).  Tanner leads everyone away from Toby, and up in the mountains Tanner manages to shoot Alberto in the head from a far-off distance.  Marcus, both enraged and extremely upset at the death of his friend, decides to take matters into his own hands.  With the help of a local who knows the area, they go behind where Tanner has them at bay and, despite his age and shock, kills Tanner.

Toby manages to escape, head back to the casino, and manages to get the final amount, much to the bank's irritation. 

Some time later, Hamilton has retired, and despite what the Rangers investigated he is convinced Toby was in on it.  Toby and Marcus have a face-off when Marcus goes to Toby's ranch and puts out his theory.  Toby will neither confirm nor deny the charge, but there's nothing Marcus can do.  Ultimately, while the oil well's money goes to the sons (with the same bank as trustee), Marcus suggests that they might meet again, to settle unfinished business.

Perhaps at this juncture I should point out that I am from West Texas (El Paso to be precise).  As such, I know a bit of the people in Hell or High Water, what kind of people they are, and I can vouch for the general accuracy of how the people in this region were portrayed.  They were loyal, hard-working, and not ashamed or embarrassed to pack heat publicly.

As a side note, there have been people who, thanks to Open-Carry, walk around with guns, and I think even a rifle, inside the library.  So long as they keep them in their holster there is nothing that can be said, and while I personally am not a fan of open-carry (though I'm amenable on concealed), I can say that the final confrontation between the Howard Brothers and the bank customers is surprisingly plausible.

Again and again I come back to No Country For Old Men in that both films have the same setting and some of the same plot points (the old lawman pursuing the criminals).  There are major differences though, for example the old lawman in No Country For Old Men, as far as I remember, wasn't facing retirement, nor was the lawman in Hell or High Water as shocked by the crimes being committed as in No Country For Old Men

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan put in nods to the reason for the brothers' action whenever we see a driving montage.  The highways and byways of West Texas are littered with billboards offering loans and assistance for foreclosures, the literal signs of desperation in this area devastated by predatory lending and financial woes.

Sometimes these not-so-subtle acknowledgements of the financial crisis were a bit much, as if they were going slightly overboard with them, and the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was a bit overt in the mood it was attempting to set (putting in appropriately sad and somber music at the beginning to tell us the 'tragic' nature of Hell or High Water). 

Those about are the only real criticisms I have against Hell or High Water, since just about everything about it was top-notch.  This has to be one of Chris Pine's best performances, showing the actor within the Captain Kirk and intense blue eyes he's better-known for.  I liked how Pine used his body to convey Toby's discomfort and unease with himself and his actions, that halting manner of a generally good, quiet man who goes to extreme methods to 'do right' for his children.  His scene with the waitress whom he gives a generous tip with his ill-gotten gains (and who has no desire to return the tip as she herself faces tough times and is sympathetic to the brother's actions, though it is until later she learns what they did) is a beautiful one.  Pine expresses his hesitancy with her, the genuine kindness of Toby, almost the shyness he has.  It is a beautiful performance.

It's also a perfect counterbalance to Foster's wild Tanner, the id to Toby's ego.  Foster has always been an incredible talent who has never had the real breakout/breakthrough his talents merited.  He had a disastrous turn in X-Men: The Last Stand as Angel, and while he gave great performances in Ain't Them Bodies Saints (where he played against type as a gentle man) and as Stanley Kowalski in the National Theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Foster has not had that big role, that one performance that made everyone look.  Hell or High Water has to be that breakout, because he dominates the screen every time he's there.  Sometimes just his voice does so, as when he disparages Mr. Pip in one of the film's rare moments of humor (another scene where Hamilton and Parker deal with a cantankerous waitress while waiting for the brothers is another). 

To me, it would be a downright scandal if Ben Foster does not get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Hell or High Water.  This type of role, that of the slightly unhinged man, isn't new territory for Foster.  It is, however, his best work so far in a career that should be moving forward.

As for Bridges, part of lack of enthusiasm for him comes from the fact that he seems to be doing a repeat of what we've seen in his recent films like Crazy Heart, True Grit, and Heaven help us, R.I.P.D. and Seventh Son.  Granted, his slightly bitter yet mournful Texas Ranger is his best performance in a while, and he does have great moments as he contemplates the criminals and his own impending end (particularly when he sets out to avenge his friend and take Tanner down), but Bridges has done this type of role before.

That isn't strictly a criticism of Bridges or his performance in Hell or High Water, just an acknowledgment that this isn't new territory for him.

Hell or High Water is simply an excellent film, one of the best of the year.  It is a bright light among the wreckage that 2016 has been.  A somber tale of despair in a remote part of the world, with fantastic performances by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, along with one of Jeff Bridges' best work in a while, Hell or High Water is an elegant elegy of two different men, united by blood and need.


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