VOD Review: Hell or High Water.
Chris Pine and The Dude star in a film that captures the tone of some of the best westerns in a modern way, but suffers from a messaging issue.
If you want a shot at the Oscars, your movie has to have a message. That or just pander as hard as you possibly can to Hollywood (looking at you, La La Land). Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, has something to say, but it won’t stop saying it. Which is a damn shame, as it does so well with subtlety that the constant repetition comes across as insulting and aggravating. Hell or High water is a good movie, but would have been truly magnificent if it had shut the hell up every once in awhile and just let itself be.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster, sans the shitty beard from Warcraft) Howard are two brothers “living” in west Texas. Tanner is recently released from prison for the murder of their abusive father, and in the interim Toby had been the sole caretaker of their dying mother. The brothers are forced to confront the enormous debt that their mother left behind, or face losing the last bit of family they have left: their ranch. The brothers decide to stick it to the bank that has been strangling the life out of their family by sticking said bank up. This puts the Howards square in the sights of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a dogged sheriff just weeks away from retirement.
The acting is perfectly fine, and I’ll touch on that in a second, but I’d be remiss to not mention the real star of the movie first: the location. This corner of Texas is both dying and a death sentence: it reeks of desperation, defeatism and toothless defiance. Neither prospecting for oil nor being a cowboy pay that well anymore, and the banks and payday lenders are drinking what remains of the population’s lifesblood dry.
The location is compellingly vibrant in its dystopia. It sets the table, drives the plot and provides an emotional core to the brother’s story. It’s a modern take on a theme as old as Robin Hood and one that peppered many of the best westerns: the struggling town beset by robber barons, desperate for a hero. But this is reality, and these boys are not heroes.
The Dirge Song
The Howards are dead men walking. That they both know this from the outset matches the setting and sets the tone of the film. Toby is resigned to his destruction: he knows this business is a deal with the devil, and that sooner or later the bill will come due. His only concern is to settle his accounts beforehand, and leave their land as an inheritance to his estranged wife and sons.
Tanner, on the other hand, revels in his defiance. He never had a share of life to begin with, growing up abused, only to end up incarcerated. As such his actions are rage and exultation all in one: he knows where the road leads, but damn if he isn’t going to whoop it up along the drive.
The dynamic works well, and both Pine and Foster turning in strong performances. Foster’s performance is just a hair better if I had to pick, and the story of a shade of a man putting on his fanciest duds for his own funeral adds some melancholy and humor to what could have been a completely somber movie. The only problem with his character is that it makes Jeff Bridges character a little superfluous in comparison.
It’s not you, Jeff Bridges, it’s me. Well, it’s the me that saw No Country For Old Men years ago and already bought everything your character was selling. Sheriff Hamilton is a shell of a man, more a badge than a person. He does his job well, because he is his job. His barbed conversations with his deputy are what passes for human interaction in his mind. Like the brothers, he is on death row, a death sentence in the form of a gold watch. He could have passed on this case… but honestly, he couldn’t. This dog only has one trick, and that hound-dog wants one more hunt.
My problem isn’t that the role isn’t acted well; I could watch Jeff Bridges shopping for groceries and find it highly entertaining. It’s that aside from the finalé, his role is largely unnecessary. The long arm of the law could have been a faceless pursuer for nearly all of the film without any real loss of the message. He’s emblematic of the major flaw of the film: it doubles and even triples down on its themes and message.
The Beauty of Gray
This movie takes subtlety and then hits you with it over the head a million times; it’s like death by a child’s toy hammer. It shows you a billboard for a payday loans provider on the way in to a dying town; it then shows you three more throughout the movie just to make sure you got it. It takes the disenfranchisement felt by Tanner and equates it to Native Americans’ slow humiliation and degradation. It then has three conversations and two added characters relating to that theme thrown in just to be safe. It’s like that guy at the bar in college who thinks he’s following etiquette by only glancing at the girl he likes… a million times over three hours.
This movie has many good things to say: the feelings of a population slowly being left behind; a system that keeps you down and then clutches its pearls when you snap; a long slow look at the dying of the American Dream. These messages are certainly timely, but it feels like the director assumes that those who need to hear the message are too ignorant to tease it out themselves. As we just saw in our most recent election, those messages are quite resonant; there is no need to have to spell it out so painstakingly.
Gas Hed Goes West
All complaints aside, this is a good movie. It’s got that Western feel of hard men doing hard things. It has great acting and the location gives off an emotion to the film that permeates it. The music is largely background songs on old radios, but it doesn’t distract. I don’t think this movie has a chance in Hell of winning best picture, but it does set a High Water mark for stories about Americana.