Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hell or High Water (2016)

David Mackenzie, one of the most unique and unsung filmmakers working today, moves from the geometrically precise confines of the prison in his last movie, Starred Up, to the wide, expansive, and unpredictable world of West Texas (though it was actually shot in New Mexico) in Hell or High Water, easily one of the best new movies this year.

The basic structure of the film is nothing new, as two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), start robbing banks (for initially unspecified reasons) and are pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). But it's brand new stuff for Mackenzie, whose energy and commitment to the material makes it feel like something we've never seen before even though we simultaneously know that's not the case. It also helps that he's working from a script from hot-shot actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who previously penned last year's Sicario. In a film like this in which a great director is not involved with the script and that script happens to sizzle with interesting characters and rich dialogue, it can be harder to discern whose film this really is. But Mackenzie still brings plenty to the table, whether it's in his unobtrusive use of the long take (note the film's opening shot, or another halfway through in which Toby beats a young punk to a pulp), the way his shot-reverse-shots will alter based on who's talking (there's a scene in a diner with the brothers where the camera gets far closer to their faces than you'll normally see), how a two shot accentuates the creak of a windmill in the background, or in the way he gets Chris Pine to mumble his words in certain scenes to such somber effect that you'll think Michael Shannon's talking if you close your eyes.

And speaking of Pine, this is probably his best work as an actor, as he jettisons his Captain Kirk pretty boy sheen and charm in exchange for scruffy facial hair, sad eyes, and a persona altogether more weathered and gruff. While it's no surprise that he plays the more responsible of the two brothers (Foster is essentially a lose-cannon baddie with a boatload of reckless charm and intimidation--his encounter with a bitter Comanche is one of the best cinematic moments all year), Toby's hardly a saint. The bank robbing scheme after all is his plan, and while he seems fairly harmless when sized next to his brother, the fact that he's divorced and has a son for whom setting a good example has all but been forsaken sort of evinces the fact that he's tired of trying to be good in this world.

While this may all sound like fairly serious stuff, Hell or High Water supplies a surprising amount of laughs along the way, mostly from the male banter between Bridges and Birmingham. Bridges' partner is part Indian and part Mexican, and the majority of their interactions consists of racial insults from the former towards the latter. While these are played for laughs, mainly because we sense Bridges-who's in Rooster Cogburn mode here-needs something to entertain himself as they pursue the two brothers (one thing the film does really well is in showing how for the most part these sorts of "chases" are fairly uneventful and at times downright boring), Sheridan's script is too smart to let this humor simply exist for its own sake: underlying the facetious racism is the idea of the frontier and the expelling of native Americans, only to have the white settlers in turn be torn apart by modern day corporations. I won't reveal how this all makes its way into the narrative except to say Sheridan weaves it in with a kind of deft precision such that the film never feels like it's about "social issues" even though they underly the central premise.

Instead, Hell or High Water feels like something a little more raw and rough-hewn. Its pace is often gentle, its mood somber, its humor the result of men searching for ways to communicate with one another. Townes Van Zandt's Dollar Bill Blues plays during the opening credits (I should also note that the end credits include a song from Chris Stapelton's outstanding debut album from last year, Traveller, which I believe is the first time a song of his has been used in film), quite apropos considering that Mackenzie's picture as a whole sort of has the sad, languid feel of those Townes songs where people are fraught with trouble and do strange or bad things to solve their worries.

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