Monday 21 November 2016

Hell Or High Water (2016) - Movie Review

Last year, one of the bigger critical successes was the harrowing war thriller Sicario. It also represented one of the few times when I met the critical consensus not just in opinion, but in the magnitude of that opinion. Sicario, structurally, was easily the best film of the year and all of its individual pieces were genius on their own and created sheer magic when brought together. Since almost everyone involved already laudable careers to fall back on, I sincerely hoped that writer Taylor Sheridan would also stick around. I mean, if that was his first attempt, I legitimately can’t wait to see what he’s cooked up for us this time.

The plot: Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers who have been hitting several banks in the western Texas area and Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are hot on their trail. However, as the details become clearer for both parties, it seems that this string of robberies may not be as clear-cut as they appear and who is on the “right” side may not be so easy to discern.

The focal cast here is small but tightly packed in terms of energy and finesse. Ben Foster, quite frankly, gives the best performance of his career thus far as this lewd and insanely energetic ex-con that makes for easily one of the most engaging presences of any character this year. Opposite him is Chris Pine, another actor I haven’t always had the best impression of, and he works brilliantly as the moral compass of the two. Jeff Bridges will always be awesome regardless of what drivel he’s given, and him as a Texan Ranger lets him break out his inner Rooster Cogburn once again to make for a captivating performance. Birmingham as his partner is a little bland, but then again that’s only in comparison to Bridges.

In keeping with the murky tone of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan goes into a similar lane of moral examination and what justifies what actions. Except where Sicario focused on the actions of a majority, in that case the U.S. government compared to the Mexican cartel, this looks at the actions of individuals. In that sense, it’s closer to the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men than Sicario. Now, while I will always love morality tales when they’re done right, I’m not so hot on how it is executed here. The reason why is that this primarily focuses on the grey standings of morality that crime falls into, i.e. doing subjectively wrong things for the right reasons. It’s a method of writing that has become textbook when it comes to modern crime dramas, and since it’s played here fairly straight from the very start, it feels rather been-there-done-that.

Now, that’s not to say that the characters feel tired as an extension of that. The moral themes may be tried-and-true by this point but the characters that personify them here are still very well-written. Particularly when it comes to the relationships between the characters, from Toby and Tanner’s sibling rivalry and adoration to Marcus and Alberto’s weirdly nuanced connection through their respective cultures, even down to Marcus’ begrudging understanding of the brothers and why they are taking the path that they are. The morality on its own may be basic, but the way it manifests itself through the characters and their dialogue is genuinely well done. A moment that sticks out for me is a scene in a casino where Tanner gets into a confrontation with a Native American. The note that that encounter ends on is another one of those punch-to-the-gut moments that I know is going to stick with me for a while yet.

This may seem like a weird statement to make, but I don’t see this as a revisionist Western film. This doesn’t the same sort of retrospective commentary that a lot of those types of stories wear on their sleeves. Instead, the elements that are normally associated with the Western genre are played relatively straight, just updated. It sticks to what could loosely be called the usual script and applies it to the Texas frontier of today. The relationship between whites and Native Americans, showing staples of the genre like the saloon and local gaming establishment, the desire for land and its plunder (just swapping out literal gold for black gold), the final shootout, even the music sensibilities courtesy of go-to modern Western sound creators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; the regular trappings of a classic Western story are all here, just with a modern setting. Rather than remarking on how much the culture and our sensibilities have changed since the old frontier days like the usual revisionist fare, this film instead shows how much ultimately hasn’t changed in terms of setting and circumstances.

All in all, it took me a while to reach it but my ultimate conclusion is that this is a damn good Western flick… and I’m not even that big on Westerns to begin with. The acting is good, with easily Ben Foster’s most enthralling performance yet, the writing may take the easy route with its morality but conveys in some startlingly brilliant ways, the music is country at its best and finally redeems Nick Cave for his dud work on Far From Men and its approach to the Western genre manages to remain faithful to the ways of old and merge with modern storytelling techniques without going too far into revisionist fare that, honestly, we’ve been getting too much of recently.

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