Sunday, October 9, 2016

New Release! Hell or High Water (2016)

Director: David Mackenzie

An absolutely brilliant movie that gives a very familiar genre - the Western - an update that stays completely true to the spirit of the very best classics.

Hell or High Water tells the story of two brothers in west Texas who rob several banks in small, depressed towns of those desolate plains. One of the brothers, Tanner Howard, is reluctant but seems driven by some unspoken motivation for the crime spree, while his brother (and ex-con) Toby clearly revels in being a true modern outlaw. After they rob two banks within a very short span, the attention of the Texas Rangers is drawn. In particular, Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who is only a few weeks away from retirement but takes the case as a way to still feel useful before he hangs up his badge for good.

The basic plot is nothing novel, but this hardly matters. This movie is far more about characters and what they represent in today's world. There is some heady social commentary made about modern poverty and desperation, and some heavy implications about guns and violence.  All of these themes have the potential to be overly dense, but the film uses them skillfully, without being heavy-handed or contrived. For the most part, the revelations about the Tanner brothers' spree and its motivation create enough compelling drama. Their pursuit by Ranger Hamilton and his partner Alberto adds a cat-and-mouse element that is at first entertaining but becomes deadly serious by film's end. And like many great stories, we are not left with nice, pat answers about the ultimate resolution, which leaves us with some serious questions about not only the main characters in the story but also the world in which they live. The script is amazingly tight, with every scene feeling absolutely essential, whether it is one of intense action, sly or tongue-in-cheek humor, or quiet drama.

Even seemingly placid scenes such as this one are eminently
watchable, thanks to great shot composition, great acting, and
compelling dialogue.
As strong as the writing and direction are, the acting is just as commendable. Ben Foster is masterful as the charismatic but ultimately murderous Toby. And I'm probably far from the only person surprised at the outstanding performance of Chris Pine - an impossibly handsome leading man who is mostly known for starring in big-budget movies like the recent Star Trek reboots. Here, though, Pine turns in a nuanced, award-worthy performance as the tortured Tanner Howard. Less surprising is that Jeff Bridges is amazing as Ranger Hamilton. While he could be accused of channeling a little too heavily from his own take on Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, he imbues Hamilton with an impressively authentic, old-school, light-hearted but immensely capable Texan. While Hamilton evokes laughter for much of the film, it is frighteningly easy to feel his pain and anger once things get lethally serious during the film's third act.

I must also mention the setting and cinematography. Being from Texas, albeit San Antonio in the center of the state, I am familiar enough with the west Texas area to recognize that David Mackenzie does an amazing job conveying the desolation and beauty of the region. The openness of those dry plains can inspire both limitless hopes and dire fears, both of which play into the story of this film. All of this is further enhanced by a memorable but never invasive music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

This is one of the best films I've seen in some time. I'll certainly watch it again, and I already plan to go back and watch director Mackenzie's earlier works. I can't recommend this one highly enough.