David McKenzie’s bone-dry crime-western offers a lot buried underneath the surface.
By Orla Smith
‘They don’t make them like this anymore’, except they do. I hear people say that all the time, so how can it be true? Cinema has changed over time, as has everything else, but the problem isn’t that classic, quality films have gone away; the problem is that people have stopped seeing them. With the rise in superhero films and the complete takeover of tent-pole franchises in the minds of the movie going audience, many avid cinema goers naturally long for the director-centric era of the 70s, when critical acclaim was enough to draw the masses. Still, it hardly matters as long as films like ‘Hell or High Water’ are still being shown somewhere. Those who want them can find them, as long as they look hard enough.
There’s a classical, refined sensibility to the film, but it’s still thoroughly modern in its dealing with the financial crisis and corrupt banks (calling to mind last year’s ‘The Big Short’), and contains impossible-to-avoid points of comparison with the Coen Brother’s ‘No Country for Old Men’ with its desolate, beige, western landscapes that seem to stretch on endlessly, and the obvious counterpoints of the two aging sheriffs struggling with their relationship with their work. ‘Hell or High Water’ isn’t quite as bone-crunching as ‘No Country’, nor does it try to be, but the film’s opening uses that same bare-faced, stripped back realism, utilising dry-as-a-bone humour, not to entertain, but to further convince. We’re thrown head first into the world of our two lead characters, brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively), who are introduced to us as masked criminals, a mix of menacing and fumbling as they rob a few banks in the morning. Once word gets out about what they’re doing, a pair of sheriffs are put on their tail, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) and Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s nearing his retirement and approaching this case as his last.
The question is, why should we root for two guys who spend all day taking money that isn’t theirs? Perhaps the film’s most interesting point is its morals, which are completely grey on all accounts. We follow two pairs of people, who are at first glance on the good and bad side of the law, but you follow both as protagonists, and you long for the success of both, even if you know their triumph is most likely mutually exclusive. The Howard brothers have many reasons to do what they’re doing, and revenge for the bank’s treatment of their mother may be one, but Toby’s real drive is his estranged family. They’re distant from him, and he seems resigned that he’ll never be a true part of their lives, but he has a one-track mind in that regards. With this money, his sons will not have to go down the path he’s on, and he knows that that path is leading rapidly to a dead end.
There’s a sequence about halfway into ‘Hell or High Water’ when it went from good to great. David McKenzie’s touch is so light that the themes of the film are almost too subtle, but in that one little scene I felt they were captured perfectly, in a way that was truly moving. It’s a film about loneliness and companionship. That might seem strange when everything else would point to the crime/thriller genre, but those elements are not what grounds this film in excellence, and they’re not what you remember by the end. These two pairs of people seem to have nothing but each other, and this is particularly evident in the characters of Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, who feel like the people we experience the story through. Pine is resigned to his own isolation. He’s accepted that that’s his fate, but with his brother he’s able to enjoy some unspoken understanding and solace. Bridges is reaching the end of his career and afraid of the quietness of retirement. We see him in his last weeks of work, clinging on to the back and forth he has with his partner and longing for it not to end, yet beginning to accept decidedly that it will, and soon. These feelings are best articulated not through words, but through experience, and there are fleeting points in ‘Hell or High Water’ where it captures that in ways that cut right to the core. Perhaps those moments come and go too quickly, but there’s also a strong argument to be made that it’s far better to be too subtle than to go overboard.
The cast is peppered with character actors renowned for sinking into roles with ease, and Foster, Bridges and Birmingham all do that brilliantly. Perhaps the biggest takeaway though is Chris Pine, most known for showier roles in showier films, most notably the recent ‘Star Trek’ reboots. This is firm and solid proof that he’s a damn fine actor, tackling the character in the film that’s perhaps the most interesting whilst being the most quiet. He’s observant and incredibly subdued, but Pine seems to fit in with his environment, creating a man who feels lived in and proving he’s capable of delivering something understated and refined.
There’s an impressive sense of place throughout the film, set by Giles Nuttgens’ dusty cinematography and enhanced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ music, which fits like a glove and adds dimensions of texture to the environment it inhabits, filling the never-ending plains with the sounds of melancholy country music that acts as the key to unlocking the film’s quieter, more wistful passages.
‘Being poor is a disease’, says Pine’s character, explaining his motives in his own terms. He’s talking about the cycle of poverty he and his family are trapped in, the vicious circle that forces people like him into corners like the one he seems to be permanently banished to; vicious circle’s perpetuated by corrupt bankers. The film isn’t as riotously angry as ‘The Big Short’ on that matter, but its quiet indignation is clear. That’s just one of many things that makes ‘Hell or High Water’ a must-see, as it offers so many dimensions of thought for those willing to look deeper into what they’re watching. You could say it’s subdued to a fault, but with every second I spend thinking about the film, it gets even better in my mind. Since I saw it a few days ago it has simmered in my mind, and I have a feeling that it will age like fine wine.
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