Hell or High Water
(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.
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