Friday, August 19, 2016

"Hell or High Water"

 3.5 / 5 

Hell or High Water is as cautious and methodical as two of its three leading characters, and occasionally as violent and unpredictable as its third -- two of whom are bank robbers, and one of whom is the aged, weary Texas Ranger on their trail.

This is a movie that expects and rewards patience.  Though marketers want you to know it is from the writer of Sicario, Hell or High Water is, at every turn, languid when the other film is anxious, calm when the other film is fearful.  Sicario is a relentless movie that grips you tight and pulls you along from even before its very first frame, but Hell or High Water is more like Bridges' character; he really doesn't care what you think or if you're interested.

But he and the film are both fascinating, in large part because of their languid styles.  They are weary of yet in love with the nondescript but sharp edges of West Texas, where even cowboys can't understand why they bother to do their jobs anymore.  Time has passed by these parts, which leaves its older residents hollow and resigned, while the younger folks are aware of how much they've been cheated by their circumstances.

One of them, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), has been cheated more than most.  Divorced, broke, unable to afford his child support payments, the iniquities don't end: His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) shot and killed their mother's husband, for which he was sent to prison.  Now he's out, and the mother has died, leaving their desolate ranch to Toby, who's in turn determined to make sure it goes to his children -- not just to give them somewhere to live, but because an oil deposit has been discovered on the ranch, one that stands to make everyone rich.

The problem: The bank intends to get the ranch.  Toby needs to make sure he gets it first, but cash is non-existent.  The solution: He and his just-sprung brother will rob some banks.  He's thought it all out, and no one will get hurt.  They'll pull just enough robberies to get the money they need; in effect, the bank will pay what he owes.

From its very first shot Hell or High Water makes it clear: The hard-working people of Texas -- of the country, for that matter -- aren't the ones who are guilty for their condition.  Toby and Tanner are Robin Hood-style heroes, not robbing the banks but taking back what should be theirs with a ruthlessness not far off from the bankers themselves when they repossess a home.

But there is the matter of the law.  Guns are carried but never used in the robberies.  Low amounts of cash are taken.  The FBI has no interest in the rash of robberies, but they intrigue Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whose Mexican and Native American roots are a source of endless amusement for the soon-to-retire Hamilton.

Hell or High Water takes its time setting up the conflict, but its close observations of desperate lives make it endlessly compelling to watch, and the movie builds tension well -- though releases it much earlier than a less assured film might.

Toby and Tanner continue their crime spree even as Hamilton and Parker close in on them, leading to a couple of scenes of brief but nonetheless shocking violence, which in Hell or High Water is never treated with glamour or excitement; it's depressing and unnecessary, and if the movie takes a certain gleeful attitude toward guns when they're not being used, it hates the consequences of pulling the trigger and takes no joy in the outcomes.

With uniformly strong performances by all four of the central characters, especially Foster as the unhinged Tanner, Hell or High Water is a bleak and sad Western-twinged movie, a film that takes a steel-eyed but disappointed view of an American landscape that once inspired epics and now can barely muster the enthusiasm of an old dog.

It's a film that longs for a better time -- whose title is uttered in a scene inside an attorney's office, where the photos of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson hang on the walls, one of the men made by Texas, the other destroyed by it, both of them Democrats, both of them relics of a long-ago time when hard work and dedication paid off.

But we've gotten to a point where the only thing that pays off anymore is stealing from other people, but subtly and professionally, like the financial institutions do it. As one of the old-timers observes, the days of stealing the old-fashioned way, of robbing banks and getting away with it, are long past.  If such a desperate act is the only way left to get ahead, where do we go from here?

Viewed Aug. 18, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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