Hell or High Water and all the images you see in this review are owned by CBS Films and Lionsgate
Directed by David Mackenzie
Can we say award season is in full swing now? Have we run out of DC films to be disappointments after collecting half a bajillion dollars instead a full bajillion? Sure, Doctor Strange is in November and we’ve got a few more animated kids films to suffer through, but the deluge of lightweight and over budgeted boom-a-palooza is over? Well we can only hope, but what we should be hoping for even MORE is that the Oscar bait this year is up to snuff and not a bunch of studio films that cut the budget and let the actors look pensive for minutes on end set in World War 2. At least with this movie, things seem to be off to a good start as this is a down and dirty Texas crime movie starring well known genre actors as well academy award winning ones! Will this be one of the best films of the year (Oscar bait or otherwise), or is there just a bunch of hot air surrounding a mediocre actioner? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with two kinda dopey dudes robbing a small time bank in a small time town in East Texas. They manage to get away clean, more so out of dumb luck than their own skill, but I guess that’s the advantage of robbing bum-fuck nowheres-ville. The two end up hitting a few more places in a similar manner, also getting though it by the skin of their teeth, and this gets the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who’s on the verge of retirement but thinks he can nab these two before he finishes up his tenure. He drags along his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) to check on those places that have been hit and see if they can predict where the two are gonna strike next, all the while running into reminds of how miserable these areas are due to the recent recession. Our nominal heroes by the way, brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are victims of said misery, but their exact motivations aren’t clear yet as to why they’re raising money and how much of it they need. Will the cops stop the robbers before they can reach their goal? What are Jeff Bridges chances of making it out of this alive considering he’s days from retirement? Is it REALLY that hard to catch these dumb mother fuckers?
I liked this movie a lot, and it might end up being on my best of the year list, but it’s not what I’d call all that original or even one of the best examples of its genre. Only time will tell if this is gonna be a film we remember going forward (or even if it will be remembered in 2017), but then not every movie has to be The Town or the first two thirds of No Country for Old Men to be good. Sure, the movie invites comparisons like that by being a film about sympathetic criminals in the middle of an economically blighted area who are being chased by thoughtful police officers who are getting too old for this shit and has seen dumb asses like this all their lives, but as Coen Brothers Lite or another emotionally dense heist film, it does its job extremely well and is honestly better than what Ben Affleck and the Coen Brothers themselves have put out this year.
It’s another movie that’s all about the housing market crash of 2008, but honestly the movie stays vague enough about it that you can probably trot this out at any time and it’d be applicable. Also something that might be worth noting is that Texas averted a lot of the damage of the 2008 crash (I’m sure someone much smarter than I can explain why, but it has something to do with less strict regulations on how land can be used… or something like that) which might be an indication that they don’t want to reference that specific event. Whenever the hell this is supposed to be, the plight of the poor and middle class against the forces of the marketplace and the big banks is a tale as old as time, and so is the tale of those who dared to fight against the system; sometimes for noble ends (Robin Hood) and sometimes for selfish yet populist ends (John Dillinger). That’s one of the better aspects of this movie where the not so subtle imagery of billboards offering debt relief or houses with For Sales signs whizzing by the two brothers’ cross country journey is complemented by the average folks who in small ways end up entangled in their fight against the system that screwed over so many. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham’s manhunt for these two bank robbers is constantly stymied (usually in small ways) by the way the recession has blighted East Texas, from the security camera’s never fucking working, to the witness who aren’t cooperating because they hate the banks or because the “evidence” that Jeff Bridges wants to collect is a waitress’s tip that’s nearly the size of a mortgage payment.
And the thing is; the movie tries really hard to be evenhanded about all of this. The Howard boys do hurt people during their robberies, and I’m sure they aren’t feeling the Fight The Power mentality that the bystanders are feeling when they make cracks about banks being the biggest crooks, yet their reason for doing so is absolutely understandable (if a tad contrived considering there’s a very convenient ticking clock here) considering how much they stand to lose and how predatory the banks were to get them to this point. Jeff Bridges as the lovable lawman with his exasperated partner are both charismatic and charming enough and they have the law on their side (society would break down if everyone decided it was okay to wave a gun in someone’s face and demand money) but their end goal is to stop our protagonist who we want to succeed. Well… at least I wanted them to succeed. Hell, even the yokels who would just as soon throw these guys a parade for standing up for their families are the same shitheads who pull a gun out and cause chaos because they felt the need to be big damn heroes. That’s another thing I like about this. The point where THE PEOPLE get involved in trying to stop the Howards, it turns into an amazing little screed about open carry law and dispels the myth of the Good Guy With A Gun that so many irresponsible gun owners buy into. At least that’s how I saw it anyway. Several people would not be dead if they didn’t pull out a gun and risk their lives to save, what, twenty grand?
On the less subtextual aspects of this movie, its shot pretty damn well, though isn’t about to give the Coen’s a run for their money, and the music by Nick Cave is well done and fits this kind of intense crime drama to a T. I find it a bit odd that they bothered getting Nick Cave to JUST do the music when he’s just as well known for being a writer (you could probably set this alongside Lawless for an awesome double feature) but the writing from Taylor Sheridan of Sicario fame is still very strong. As far as acting, we have two standouts performances from Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, but unfortunately I felt that Chris Pine came up short. Now his character is supposed to be the grounded one who’s not cut out for this kind of life, but whenever he’s with Ben Foster it’s clear that the latter is on a whole other level. Jeff Bridges similarly is so used to these kind of roles that he can do them in his sleep and be irresistibly charming doing so, and having Gil Birmingham to work off of doesn’t hurt either. See, with those two there’s a really strong back and forth even if one of them (Bridges) is clearly the more dynamic and interesting character. I didn’t get that so much with Ben Foster and Chris Pine where it’s more like one is trying really hard to compensate for the other’s shortcomings.
Since we’re getting into the weaknesses (of which there are only a few), there are some tropes and common themes that you’d see in a movie like this (i.e. Oscar Hopefuls) that didn’t feel necessary. I feel like a lot of movies that want to be deep and contemplative about society feel the need to tone things down or at least give quiet moments at point, but the thing is that only works if there’s a REASON for it. There are parts in the first two acts that slow down for no real purpose than to remind you how deep these characters are or how thematic everything is. Early on, it takes Tanner and Toby about ten minutes to have a conversation about their dead mom with all the pauses in dialogue and wide expansive shots that don’t feel very necessary and just slow the movie down. It’s little stuff like that throughout the movie, like Jeff Bridges kvetching about a televangelist or a really surly waitress at a steak shop that are supposed to flesh out the world and give our characters even more dimension, but for me it was a lot of effort for little reward.
Also, Tanner makes a choice at the end of the movie that I kind of question why he made it. It would have been so easy to not do this ONE THING considering it was unnecessary for the path he had decided to take, and it ultimately causes HUGE problems down the road for the people he’s supposedly helping, but I guess it fits with his character. He’s shown us before that he has poor judgement and is very impulsive, so maybe it’s not worth arguing WHY he shouldn’t have done it when the only reason he needed to do is because he fucking felt like it. To me, it smacked a bit too much like a trope that needed to be in here for dramatic license, and maybe in something a bit more exaggerated it could have worked better. Also, the ending doesn’t really end on a high note. It just kind of ends and doesn’t have a real satisfying punch to it. So in one part, a character has to do something stupid to provide a dramatic twist of fate, but then they couldn’t do the same to give us a satisfying and conclusive ending. Great. It isn’t No Country for Old Men type of bad ending, but it was a disappointment that it kind of ended on an awkward whimper.
Despite its very minor issues, I still recommend the movie as one of the better ones you’ll see this year. Maybe it didn’t quite hit home for me, what with it not doing anything too original and feeling a bit forced in certain places, but it’s still leagues above most of the films we’ve gotten this year. It’s trying to swim with the big fish and maybe doesn’t quite reach that level, but you’d be hard pressed to find a movie this gripping and skillfully executed in the past eight months, and probably for the next four as well. Now if only we can get Ben Foster into the next Star Trek movie…
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