Saturday, September 17, 2016

Hell or High Water

Alternate Title:  Peak Texas
One sentence synopsis:    Two Texas brothers execute a plan to rob banks to save their ranch, while being pursued by an old Texas Ranger nearing retirement.

Things Havoc liked: It's about goddamn time.

For those who don't follow the movie calendar the way that I do, we're now in a period colloquially called the "September Slump", which is exactly what it sounds like. It's the blank space in the calendar between the blockbusters of summer and the award bait of the late fall, a period which often has lots of movies that superficially appear to be worth seeing, and prove ultimately to be pieces of crap unable to compete with the films actually coming out of Oscar season. The Judge and Gone Girl both come to mind. As such, while the options around September generally dictate that I go see them anyway, I've become rather gun-shy about movies that might appear at first glance to be the first blossoms of the fall flowering, as these films typically devolve into cheese, schmaltz, and general crap.

But not always.

Hell or High Water is an excellent film, bordering on a great one, a movie made with consummate skill and sure-handed direction by one of the best up-and-coming directors that I have yet to encounter over the course of this project, Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, whose previous credits include Young Adam, Starred Up, and the extremely underrated indie sci-fi drama Perfect Sense. I've not run into MacKenzie so far doing this because the majority of his movies are strange indie flicks about odd people that don't get a lot of play over here, but as his star has risen, so has the reach of his movies, and here we are at last, with a film that bears all his hallmarks, save with a bigger cast and a homegrown setting.

West Texas, an area of the country all its own, where the men are men and the women are armed. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, poor Texas folk whose mother's ranch is now being repossessed by the bank she had her reverse mortgage with, have decided upon a scheme of bank robbery and casino-based money laundering to pay off the debt and re-acquire the ranch for Toby's children, not that the ranch seems all that useful an asset, at least at first. Bank robbery is not a career move one makes if one has either brains or options, but the Howard boys have a plan, one that bypasses the dye packs and traceable bills and security systems that most banks are equipped with nowadays. As the brothers strike and strike again, an old nearly-retired Texas Ranger, and his half-Mexican, half-Commanche partner, is pulled off his desk in Ft. Worth to hunt down those responsible for the armed robberies, trying to divine who they are and what they are attempting to do so as to head them all off.

The setup may all sound familiar, but it's the execution here that pays the bills. The Howard brothers are played respectively by Chris Pine, whose range as an actor has never been properly appreciated, and Ben Foster, who I may have to revise my opinion on after this turn. Both brothers are fantastic, world-weary poor Texas folk, the former more or less law-abiding, the latter a hardened criminal, but both entirely believable, with characters that eschew stereotype and sound perfectly authentic. I've always liked Pine, but Foster, whose most memorable credit to-date was in X-Men 3, is a goddamn revelation here. His character seems to be set up for the Joe Pesci role of the hothead who blows everything by being stupid, only for the screenplay to turn on its head, revealing that hotheadedness and criminality are not necessarily vices when it comes to the business of robbing banks. It's a star-making performance from an actor I previously had no use for, and yet even it pales by comparison to Jeff Bridges (in his finest Rooster Cogburn style) and Gil Birmingham, who play the aforementioned Texas Rangers with a ribald ribbing that is among the truest partnerships ever committed to film. The old standby of the mismatched buddy cops is a tough one to see afresh, but the script holds up, as these two ornery old men rip one another's age, heritage, and intelligence in an exceptionally believable way. Bridges is always great, of course (as is Birmingham when he's not stuck in a Twilight movie), but rarely this good, and as the hunters relentlessly track down the hunted, the characterization only gets stronger along the way.

People have been predicting the death of American film for as long as it has been around, but it is true that the last decade has seen more and more foreign directors trying their hands at the Great American Classic Film, be it Alfonso Cuaron with The Revenant or Steve McQueen with 12 Years a Slave. Hell or High Water is a movie firmly in this genre, and Mackenzie, like the best of the foreign directors who have attempted this, brings his unique eye to the proceedings while still respecting the subject's conventions. The cinematrography is grand and sweeping, with desolate plains and empty tracklands, boarded-up stores and artificially-cheery diners or casino lobbies. Decay and dislocation are everywhere, for sale and payday loan signs choke the streets and highways, graffiti complains of poverty and economic misery. Yet the movie does not turn into some maudlin lament on the starvation of labor or some damn thing. The rough vernacular color of West Texas pervades the entire enterprise, with even bit characters given blunt, plainspoken dialogue, such as the bank clerk who tells the brothers to leave, "because so far, all you're guilty of is being stupid." The movie also delves a bit into just how hard it must be to commit armed robbery in a place where literally everyone is armed all of the time, and prepared to form a posse at a moment's notice. The sheer sense of place that Hell or High Water produces is rare in film, indie or mainstream, and it is a credit to Mackenzie and to screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (of Sicario), that they've managed to produce a film this richly appointed.

Things Havoc disliked: And it's a good damn thing that Sheridan and Mackenzie do such a good job with the dialogue and localizing, because the movie would quite probably fall apart if they did not. Nowhere is it indicated, for instance, just where these two brothers, who are, after all, doing all of this because they have no money, are getting the many and varied cars, automatic weapons, and earthmoving equipment that appear to be integral to their plans. Neither does the film bother to explain away certain fantastic coincidences, or convenient turns of mind that overtake certain characters in the run up to the climax of the film. I understand that this movie isn't about its plot, and I further understand that even if it was, we are not here to get a seminar on the mechanics of rural bank robbery in the American Southwest. But the film does ask us to swallow quite a lot of contrivance in order to make its point, something that I'm usually willing to do, but only if the movie proves itself deserving.

Final thoughts:  This one, however, does, and so there's really nothing to complain about.

Hell or High Water is an exceptional film, a high point in a year that has thus far been notably bereft of them, an excellent film that is both loyal to the oldest conventions of American cinema (the evil bank trying to take the land of the poor ranchers), and entirely defiant of all conventionality. It is a movie that boasts excellent acting, superb writing, and brilliant styling, all in the service of a thoroughly enjoyable movie, one of the very few whole-hearted recommendations I have been able to make this year. Insofar as I write these reviews so as to tell people whether they should or should not go and see a given movie, which is certainly one of the goals that this little project of mine serves, let me be clear. Go and seek this movie out. For once, this summer, you will not be disappointed.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Laika's at it again.

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