Hell Or High Water (2016)
Well heck mister, I do declare we mecay have gone and cracked this here varmint, and broken this trail of mediocre movie musings – or should that be mediocre musings on movies? I’d heard vague rumblings on the social media trail that this new Texas set thriller was a terrific little steal, with another imperious performance from the almost always brilliant Jeff Bridges. As is my mojo these days I didn’t even see the trailer beforehand, simply assuming from the poster and a general aura that this was going to be another rural western-noir hybrid in the vein of Bad Day At Black Rock, High Sierra, U-Turn or No Country For Old Men, the nervous, furtive action supplanted to the prairies of the Lonestar state, leagues and latitudes away from the urban metropoli of East and West coast America. A couple of brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and recently paroled felon Tanner (Ben Foster) have embarked on a small scale robbery spree, following their mothers recent passing from a punishing bout of resource starving cancer. Although one wouldn’t exactly cite them as hardened, violent criminals there does seem to be a method to their madness, only hitting the smallest and quietest branches of major financial entities, in the tiny, tumbleweed towns that the 21st century seems to have forgot. Carefully the duo only sequester low denomination bills as to avoid the wrath of the federal authorities who only become activated when significant bounties are yielded, offering courtesy and compassion for their victims during the commencement of the crime, but also not afraid to give any uppity citizen a pistol-whupping should he threaten their desperate plight. More curiously the string of robberies is hinted as part of a wider strategy to secure some immediately urgent investment funds, with the promise of more permanent revenue streams being unlocked for persons and placements unknown, driven by a lurking thematic undercurrent which is where Hell Or High Water finds its present-day purchase.
On their trail is the hulking persona of Ranger Marcus Hamilton, Bridges on his best form since 2009’s Oscar winning Crazy Heart. He’s career lawman mere weeks from retirement, engaged in constant banter with his half Cherokee / half Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) who absorbs his colleagues gentle barbs with a resigned indifference, returning ethnic slurs with volleys of his comrades imminent retirement and subsequent premature death. The ethnicity becomes more important as the landscape and its denizens slowly become more animated through the films sinuous script. chequering the Mid-West’s suppressed history which swings from the near genocide of the indigenous people to the criminal conquering of the Mexican state in the 19th century, both blood-soaked events casting long shadows that still loom large on America’s modern, shared history. My expectations that this was going to a single note, brooding noirish tale was swiftly struck down by the films occasionally flippant and lightly comedic tone, in fact much of its charm and enjoyment arises from the camaraderie and banter that flows between the two groups of similarly inclined units – the older lawmen and their racial jousting, the younger brothers and their familial affection. That tone is not afraid to carefully switch to the serious when the plot demands it however, as this is a film which takes its violence and its consequences as seriously as it deserves, and if there is a brooding undercurrent it is one driven of despair and futile discontent, as the wider economic forces cause desperate men to resort to desperate measures. I think this is the first film I’ve seen Pine in other than the vaguely entertaining but hardly memorable Star Trek pictures which is even remotely good, he is quite the revelation as a driven but exhausted man who despite his matrimonial separation still burns with that male prerogative of providing for his family, boxed into a criminal corner with no other option than to violate the law. If you like, you could phrase the entire film as being written by Cormac McCarthy the morning after he got laid, with all those familiar locales, masochistic fascinations and generational barbed-wire bonds spun with a humorous and almost frothy sense of humor, gnawing away at the existentialist dread of the vast and uncaring unknown.
Performance wise however this is of course Bridge’s film, director David MacKenzie citing both Thunderbolt & Lightfoot and The Last Picture Show as key films he digested for inspiration, providing Jeff with another canvas on which to project his second secret weapon – it’s sense of place and environment. For me it’s a little like Fat City or Wise Blood, they are two admired films which I’ve never quite warmed to in terms of plot or story, but I can appreciate for their tone which is generated in the locales and ancient canyons and ravines, the wide, lonely badlands of Middle America still slithering with near biblical beasts and righteous wrath. Alongside these performances then the films final ace in the hole is the potent is the economic malaise underpinning the entire endeavor, and who these three conflating forces come together in such a assured mixture of character, place and purpose. Hell Or High Water is a tale of reasonably decent men being pushed by the economic maelstrom, where sheer survival begats any respect for the law when the major crooks – the corporations who are crushing the lives of the disaffected and disenfranchised – remain utterly aloof and impervious to prosecution. At one point Parker soliloquies a lovely speech on how his land and birthrights was stolen a trio of generations ago by the grandparents of the folks who now in turn are having their birthrights stolen by the corporations, in a seemingly endless cycle of suffering, greed and theft. Aside from the thematic thrusts MacKenzie keeps his cross-hairs trained on the genre pyrotechnics, the scattering of robberies aren’t synchronized to some pulsing score or nerve shredding editing techniques, instead they play out with all their own compact and , constrained drama, leading to the inevitable heightened stakes and tragic incidents that usually conflate when you mix frightened people, unforeseen circumstances and lethal firearms. I didn’t find Nick Cave and Warren Ellis honky-tonk influenced score as atmospheric as most which surprised me as a major fan of their work, like the film it was more jaunty than you’d expect from their previous aural efforts, but that didn’t distract from this assured diamond rattlesnake of a movie, a serpentine beast with a lethal, poisonous bite.
MacKenzie and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have layered the film with a scattering of subtle touches, which may explain why the film has lingered on the so called black-list for so long. Despite the masculine banter around ethnicity, around professional efficiency cloaking any feminine expression of affection you can see Parker’s face occasionally contort in exasperation as his patience is tested to the limits, when yet another racist epithet is almost carelessly cast. It’s an interesting take on various ethnicities and faiths working in not exactly harmonious but lightly suspicious unity, as the film refreshingly doesn’t go anywhere near any queries over immigration which has so paralyzed the modern body politic on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the side characters add colour and pathos to the illegal endeavor, from a sympathetic waitress who resists the lawmen’s appeal to her better nature after Toby leaves her a lucrative, mortgage supporting tip, to a memorable scene stealing elderly waitress who re-defines the concept of the customer always being right, in perhaps the best customer retail exchange since Jack ordered off the menu in Five Easy Pieces. The final confrontation is a rarity, pivoting on character rather than conflict, charting the assured final steps of a near perfectly paced movie. I’m looking forward to a small screen revisit to tease out some of the finer details buried in its sparse, directorial style which is reminiscent of a Don Siegel, a Robert Aldritch or Raoul Walsh, letting the place and characters tell the story, rather than clinging to intrusive camerawork or aesthetic antics which could deviate away from the films quietly powerful internal engine. Hell Or High Water isn’t a film that is going to change the world, it isn’t destined to perch atop any of the all time great lists, but what it does achieve is sorely remiss from this years American film – the commitment in taking an adult audience through a compelling story, crafting memorable and empathetic characters, varnished with contemporaneous layers and musings which linger long after its fruitful and thoughtful finale;