Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Hell or High Water (2016)

Of all of 2017's Best Picture nominees, one sticks out a little. “Hell or High Water” was released in the middle of the year, not in the Oscar-friendly winter months. It's not a glitzy costume drama and not quite a high-falutin' drama dealing with important social issues. It's a medium budget modern day western, a gritty little genre piece. Yet, by the time the nominees were announced, it was a foregone conclusion that “Hell or High Water” would be included. The film pulled off this off the old fashion way. A bunch of good reviews lead to a decent bit of buzz, the movie slowly picking up Best Of list placements and awards throughout the year. A win is looking unlikely but it's refreshing and pleasantly surprising that a film like this – a motion picture not designed to win Oscars – would go as far as it has.

When Toby and Tanner's mother died, she left a family ranch in debt to a local bank chain. If the debt isn't paid back within a few days, the bank will foreclose on the property. Toby intends to keep the land, as oil was recently discovered under it and he wishes to ensure a good life for his ex-wife and their sons. So Toby and Tanner, a violent ex-con, hatch a scheme. They will rob the banks threatening to foreclose on the land, laundering the money at small casinos, and pay back the debt. A pair of cops, one near retirements, attempt to track down the brothers as they work their way across West Texas.

Many films get described as modern westerns but “Hell or High Water” perfectly fits the term. If you sent the story back in time, switched out the trucks for horses and machine guns for bird rifles, the story would play out more-or-less the same way. It's a film about Texas rangers chasing bank robbers, after all. Yet, in other ways, “Hell or High Water” is very specific to the modern day. I don't live in Texas but the small towns portrayed in this film – quiet, dusty, full of shuttered businesses, empty buildings, and poor folks scraping to survive – are very familiar to me. You can go to any state in the American South and find towns like these, economically depressed and occupied by people struggling to get by. In particular, the anti-heroes targeting banks, as places all too wiling to take advantage of the poor locals, strikes me as especially relevant in the modern day.

For all its clever nods to genre conventions – such as the cop on the edge of retirement – and modern day economical concerns, “Hell and High Water” is a character piece above all else. Toby and Tanner have a complicated relationship. Tanner is a violent ex-con, clearly with some strain of antisocial personality disorder. He eggs on a pair of rowdy teen thugs until his brother fights them. He later threatens a girl hitting on him in a casino. The cops only get on the duo's trail because Tanner spontaneously robbed a bank alone. (He also displays the charisma of a sociopath, charming a pretty hotel clerk into his bed.) Toby, meanwhile, is quiet and thoughtful, planning out the individual details of his plan. Ben Foster and Chris Pine are both great in the parts. Foster is unhinged, Pine is thoughtful. They share a very realistic brotherly rapport, grounding the movie in natural feelings of family.

Despite two great lead performances, the only “Hell or High Water” cast member to receive a nod from the Academy was Jeff Bridges. Which isn't unfair because Bridges is excellent. As Marcus Hamilton, the cop on the brothers' trail, he brings all his folksy wisdom and country charm to the part. He's an incredibly observant man but Bridges underplays it, living mostly in his head, keeping most of his very interesting thoughts to himself. We get the most insight into Marcus' personality when he interacts with his partner, a half Indian/Mexican man. He razes his partner for his heritage, in a quasi-racist way the movie doesn't quite excuse. Their interaction leads to some of my favorite scenes in the movie, like sitting on a porch smoking a cigarette or Bridges' complaining about the televangelist program his partner watches.

“Hell or High Water” can be a movie of incredible intensity. All the bank robberies are filtered through a nervous energy, the movie's all too aware of what could go wrong. When the shit finally hits the fan, the film explodes in tension and violence. There's a huge car chase, coyly commenting on the perception that every Texan packs heat. The climax, featuring an explosion and a shoot-out, is incredibly orchestrated. Still, the smaller moments in the film that beautifully illustrate its Southern fried setting are maybe my favorite. Like when Bridges and his partner stop in at a restaurant, only for the belligerent waitress to tell them they only serve three things there, a scene so perfectly lived in and bitterly funny, it could've stepped out of a Coens brothers flick. Or even tinier moments, like when Toby offers his son a beer or when another waitress refuses to give up a tip as evidence.

It all adds up to make “Hell or High Water” a movie that is rich in color, beautifully performed, timely but still crackles like a perfectly constructed thriller. It's a movie so confident in its attributes as a pitch perfect genre piece that it's willing to end with a slow, character-driven conversation between two of the main characters. Yet that epilogue ends the film on just the right note. I wasn't sure what to expect from this one going in but I'm glad I gave it a chance. I'm glad the Academy gave it a chance too, as it has to be one of the most surprising and satisfying films of last year. [9/10]

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