Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cowboy Noir

Film: Hell or High Water
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I came to Hell or High Water knowing only the name of the film and the picture on the front of the case. That picture shows Jeff Bridges as a lawman, Chris Pine looking angry and Ben Foster wearing a pair of kick-ass shades and packing a very large weapon. Crime movie? Modern Western? Yes to both. In the watching, it feels very much like a newer version of No Country for Old Men mixed with a classic Western and a large helping of film noir. It’s one of those combinations that is either going to work perfectly almost in spite of itself or end up as a train wreck.

Fortunately, it’s the first possibility. Hell or High Water is a modern Western and a modern crime film that, perhaps specifically because of the setting, feels almost like it could have featured Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. In fact, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is nearing retirement when a string of bank robberies in his area comes to his attention. The bank robbers are brash and very smart. They’ve been hitting branches of a specific bank, going only when the bank is just opening for business to avoid crowds, and taking only the unwrapped money from the drawers so that the bills can’t be traced and there will be no dye packs in the money.

The bank robbers are brothers named Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). Toby is divorced and owes an undisclosed amount of alimony to his ex-wife. Tanner was released from prison roughly a year before. Their mother has recently died, leaving them a ranch that is about to be foreclosed on, mainly because she took out a reverse mortgage from the bank that the brothers are robbing. Their plan, it is soon evident, is to take the money they steal to a casino in Oklahoma, trade the money in for chips, then cash them out and pay off the mortgage to the bank with the same money that they stole from the bank. This isn’t a case of sentiment for either of them; oil has been discovered on the land, and Toby wants to put the ranch in a trust for his sons.

Hell or High Water follows two stories simultaneously. The first is the story of the two brothers trying to rescue the ranch for Toby’s sons. Toby is nervous but determined to see this through. Tanner wants to see this through as well, but is also much less able to restrain himself. Unlike Toby, he’s having fun robbing banks and, paying the bank back with their own money. The second story is that of Hamilton and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The two have a comically adversarial relationship with Hamilton frequently jabbing his partner about his half-Comanche, half-Mexican heritage.

What Hell or High Water offers that most other films of this sort do not is a sort of poetry in the storytelling. There’s something just and almost beautiful in the scheme of the Howard brothers. They are painfully aware that the Texas Midlands Bank took advantage of their mother, giving her just enough of a reverse mortgage to allow her to survive with almost no chance for her to pay it off, something that will suddenly have the opportunity of paying off for them with the discovery of oil on the land. Paying the bank with its own money to save the ranch has, to them and in a way to the viewer, the feel of a kind of justice. A rough justice, to be sure, but one that has that feel of being somehow correct.

Much like No Country for Old Men, our lawmen here are simply caught up in the events that happen around them. They can’t help but attempt to follow along with the crimes as they happen and hope as best they can to get ahead of them.

It’s a hell of a good story. It has connections to so many films of the past in terms of its basic story, but is original enough that it feels like something entirely new. No story, no matter how good, though, can’t survive if the performances don’t stand up to it. They do. Jeff Bridges slid into this role so naturally that he’s almost unrecognizable. It’s possibly his best work on camera, and that’s saying something. He was rightly nominated for Supporting Actor for the role. Ben Foster could have just as easily grabbed a nomination for himself. He’s what people are going to remember most after watching the film, and he’s frequently the most vibrant thing on the screen. Friend of the blog Nick Jobe has been a Ben Foster fan for a long time, so I’m certain he enjoyed Foster’s performance and I’m also fairly sure he’ll agree with that sentiment.

Chis Pine might be the weak link here, but it’s not by a lot. Pine is good, playing a determined but conflicted character. He’s just standing next to two actors who are really at the tops of their respective games.

This is a good film. In fact, it’s a very good film. It doesn’t have much of a hope of winning Best Picture in a couple of weeks (not that I’ve currently seen any of the other nominations), but I hope it stands a good chance of taking Original Screenplay. It has everything I want in that category—it feels like something connected to films I’ve seen, but it goes there in an entirely new way.

Why to watch Hell or High Water: The strongest story I’ve seen in some time.
Why not to watch: When did Jeff Bridges get this old?

8 comments:

  1. Glad you enjoyed it too. The story is unconventional and avoids the usual oscar bait trappings. There was a melancholy to the humor which was different, and most importantly I connected with the characters. There's rewatch potential and I too hope it wins for screenplay.

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    1. There's a lot to like here, and "melancholy" is one of the best words for it. But really, it's about how human everyone ultimately is. The characters can be understood and can even justify their actions regardless of how bad those actions might be.

      As much as I'd like to see this walk away with an Oscar or two, the Academy's track record (as I've tried to document) isn't that hot.

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  2. Good review, thanks, and excellent movie. Hell Or High Water is in the mix for my 2016 top five, along with La La Land, Arrival, Manchester By The Sea, War Dogs and Hacksaw Ridge.

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    1. I have a lot of 2016 catch up to do, but unless 2016 was the greatest year in film, I have a hard time seeing this knocked out of my top-5 for the year.

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  3. The ending is excellent, with the kind of ambiguity and anticipation that makes you hunger for more but pushes you back from the table before you get overstuffed. Ben Foster was terrific and could easily have received the nomination that Bridges got. Chris Pines matches Bridges 1000 yard stare to 1000 yard stare in that sequence. You are right about the prospects but through film will hold up and gain stature over time.

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    1. I think so, too. You make a very good point about that 1000-yard stare moment where Pine really does match Bridges in that unblinking standoff. It's one of the best moments in a movie filled with great moments, and I may have sold Chris Pine short in the review above. He may have been better than I gave him credit.

      It's also a great point about the ending. This is one of those endings that doesn't quite get to the end of the story but gets us just close enough that we can infer an ending, and what think happens next is worth discussing.

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  4. I actually haven't seen this yet. I don't get to see a lot of new flicks lately lol. But I have heard of it. Didn't even realize Foster was in it! But I've heard great things, and now I really wanna see it.

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    1. You'll like it. You'll like it because the plot is really good and because it's well-acted. But you'll really like it because Ben Foster should've been Oscar-nominated for it.

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