Skip to main content

I never met nobody got away with anything ever. You?

Hell or High Water
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Of the 2016 Best Picture nominees, Hell or High Water is the one that most felt like it was there to make up numbers, the one no one really thought was in any serious contention for taking the top award. Why, it stood even less chance than the science fiction nominee. Maybe that’s why it turns out to be one of the most satisfying of the nine: it has no pretensions to leading with an earnest statement (not that it doesn’t have things to say), concentrating instead on occupying its crime genre status to the best of its abilities. It additionally helps that the movie was roundly passed over, as it can avoid accompanying defamatory cries of undeserved recognition.


Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is as satisfying as his previous for Sicario was a disappointment. That was a beautifully shot movie whose delusions of seriousness evaporated once its third act opted to revolve around the exploits of a lawyer turned ninja assassin (for some unearthly reason, Benicio Del Toro’s crackpot character was so popular, he’s back for the sequel). Hell or High Water is, in contrast, resolutely grounded. It has a conceit, sure, but it’s a conceit that knows how unlikely it is, and when the conceit partly pays off, Sheridan and director David Mackenzie are careful to establish that there can be no peace of mind from living the kind of life that only happens in movies. Or, as a witness comments, their actions “seems foolish”, as the days of trying to live by robbing banks are long gone.


The days of making any kind of living appear to be long gone, and while Sheridan continually references the death of towns and industries, he’s never in danger of polemicising.  We’re put in a position of rooting for Chris Pine’s Toby Howard (accompanied by his hot-headed ex-con brother Tanner, played by Ben Foster) on his quest to steal enough undetectable cash to pay off the mortgage on his mother’s property before it defaults, so the oil found on it remains in the family (he sets up a trust so his sons are entitled to it).


Toby’s a driller by trade, but there’s no call to square off the rock and hard place of the bank versus the environment (at least it isn’t fracking); anything that’s one in the eye for the lenders, squeezing the life out of the little people, is something to get behind (the irony of “Let me ask you a question, d’y’all manage trusts?” is lovely, signing up the very people he robbed, and it works like a charm, since all they’re interested in is the money their customer will bring in).


And yet, there’s a down-at heel-inevitability to all this, a situation where the only choices available are ones of perpetuating the beyond-repair system. Toby is under no illusions that this has given him anything, and doesn’t even really know if this will be good for his kids. But there’s a principal to which he has married himself, to his cost, and the low-key final scenes suggest a man who would perhaps take it as no great loss if his life too was forfeit, even if he poses it in terms of the Ranger’s (Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton) burden (“Maybe I’ll give you piece of mind”: “Maybe I’ll give it to you”).


If Toby, typically of such tales, ends up in a situation with repercussions he did not intend (because, typically of such tales, a capable but reckless wild-card character is essential to disrupt the best-laid plans), he wins sympathy for intentions. Although, one wonders at the conveniently against-the-clock timing, that he left it until a week before foreclosure to initiate his plan.


Lost hope is all around. At one point, we hear a rancher leading cattle away from an oncoming bush fire opine “Is it a wonder my kids won’t do this for a living?”, while the towns on the brothers’ list are exhausted of inhabitants due to the entropic effect of big business sucking them dry. On the other hand, Ranger Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is there to draw attention to this not being some new phenomenon; Native Americans have been disenfranchised long before the white man’s current woes.


Toby: I didn’t kill your partner.
Marcus: Yes, you did, by setting this in motion.

And just as the myth of the bank robber, the death or glory, hell or high water, is shown to be, at best, in the mind of a maniac getting high on the sheer escalation of events, so justice itself is something less fixed and reliable than in storybooks. Hamilton dispatches Tanner with due precision, but he isn’t happy about it; relieved might be the best way of putting it.


He never expected to have his friend and colleague Alberto shot in the head (fair to say, neither did we) and his presumption of confrontation with the surviving member of the duo is left in a state of impasse, neither party able to resolve matters, and perhaps in part reluctant to do so. It’s underlined, sure, but the coded costuming of the principals is effective here; earlier, Marcus mocks Alberto for copying his dress sense, a suggestion of aspiration to the better ranger, the more experienced justice bringer, yet in the final scene Hamilton is outfitted as Toby is, for now he is outside the law in his uncertain mission.


Marcus: This is what they call the white man’s intuition.
Alberto: Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.

Sheridan has also created a quick-witted, frequently very funny piece, from Marcus’ casual racism/sly teasing as he affectionately pushes Alberto’s buttons, attempting to get him to meet him on the same level (it seems to work, as eventually he does respond in kind, as per the exchange quoted above). The banter between Tanner and Toby, when not sparring, is often humorous, or a combination of the two, and there are well-observed incidental pleasures throughout; the waitress attracted to Toby who refuses to return Marcus his tainted tip has, we later learn, also failed to identify him from his photo. Marcus and Alberto frequent a diner where they can order anything as long as its steak (“Well, I tell you one thing, nobody’s going to rob this son of a bitch”). 


The brothers’ pursuers, after the reckless final robbery, hightail it when Tanner pulls out an automatic rifle and lets loose. And the latter’s last stand makes for a curiously unexpected diversion into fatalism; Tanner doesn’t expect to get out of this, and doesn’t appear to mind, although perhaps he wasn’t expecting such a sudden exit (“Lord of the plains! That’s me”). The concerned public citizen who takes Marcus to a vantage spot is just itching to do the deadly himself (“Let me take the shot. It’s my gun”) to Marcus unwavering dismissal (“Not on your life”).


Bridges is served a feast of a character and duly tucks in, such that his Best Supporting Actor nod was a no-brainer. Marcus nonchalantly pursues his prey like a 10-gallon Colombo, with a near-unerring insight into their types, goals and modus operandi. To be honest, I could do without the actor’s now habitual choice of mumble mouth, though, like he’s just tucked in to a whole bag of dentures.


It seems like Foster’s probably played the crazy one time too many by this point, but the character is saved by the brotherly affection he holds for Toby, despite their being worlds apart in temperament and intent (questioned on why he agreed to the scheme if he thought they couldn’t succeed, he replies, “Because you asked, little brother”). And, between this and Z for Zachariah, Pine shows he’s at his best avoiding the blockbusters (or at least letting them allow him to navigate this kind of fare).  


Hell or High Water is also a movie possessed a satisfyingly-considered scheme on the part of the hoodlums, no matter how wrong it goes; the plan for laundering and then protecting the money has the ring of veracity, even if the likelihood of it working out, had Toby’s culpability been established, is debatable. Many of the reviews cited this as a western, which in terms of setting, and certainly in terms of hats, I guess it is, but I watched it with the eyes of the crime/heist genre, a picture sharing a cross-pollinated affinity with the likes of No Country for Old Men. Director David Mackenzie has had a patchy career, in terms of material rather than proficiency, but this and Starred Up represent a significant uptick (I’m only grateful Peter Berg didn’t make the picture; we dodged a particularly knuckle-brained bullet there). Certainly, Sheridan will have his work cut out for him if he’s to match the quality of either Mackenzie and Villeneuve on his upcoming Wind River. Hopefully, his torture porn debut Vile won’t prove representative of his talents behind the camera.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

You stole my car, and you killed my dog!

John Wick (2014)
(SPOILERS) For their directorial debut, ex-stunt guys Chad Stahelski and David Leitch plump for the old reliable “hit man comes out of retirement” plotline, courtesy of screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and throw caution to the wind. The result, John Wick, is one of last year’s geek and critical favourites, a fired up actioner that revels in its genre tropes and captures that elusive lightning in a bottle; a Keanu Reeves movie in which he is perfectly cast.

That said, some of the raves have probably gone slightly overboard. This is effective, silly, and enormous fun in its own hyper-violent way, but Stahelski and Leitch haven’t announced themselves stylistically so much as plastered the screen with ultra-violence and precision choreography. They have a bit of a way to go before they’re masters of their domain, and they most definitely need to stint on their seemingly insatiable appetite for a metalhead soundtrack. This kind of bludgeoning choice serves to undercut the action a…