Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water (available to rent on amazon and iTunes) earned Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations for this month’s Academy Awards, which perplexes me no end because it’s just not that kind of movie. It’s incredibly entertaining, very well shot, but there is nothing in this story you haven’t seen before, whether we’re talking characters or plot. It’s cowboy noir, and while I love noir (and did really enjoy this movie), this iteration changes nothing of the noir formula except putting the action in west Texas.

Jeff Bridges, who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, plays Texas Ranger Marcus (not Josh) Hamilton, who’s – wait for it – just a few weeks away from retirement when a string of small-time bank robberies, all of branches of the same bank, crosses his desk and gives him one last ‘big’ case before he heads off to his porch. The robbers, played by Chris Pine (Toby) and Ben Foster (Tanner), are a pair of brothers who are robbing banks solely of the small cash in the drawers, and are working up enough money to pay off some specific debt that becomes clear around the midpoint of the film. Pine plays the sensitive brother who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, while Foster is the ex-con loose cannon who seems to enjoy robbing banks for the hell of it. Bridges’ partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is a younger cop of both Mexican and Comanche descent, and bears the brunt of Bridges’ unending stream of bigoted “Injun” humor.

It’s two against two, and you can certainly guess how this is going to end if you’ve seen a few movies in your lifetime. That doesn’t make the trip less enjoyable, especially since the dialogue between the cops is snappy (other than the racist humor, which has a little shock value at the start and quickly overstays its welcome as a device to mask the affection Bridges’ character feels for his partner) and the scenery is stunning, with panoramic shots of the west Texas landscape. I haven’t been to that part of the state, but I’ve been to Arizona and New Mexico, even out of the metro areas, and it has that same feel of desolation between the arid climate and the lack of anything resembling civilization – buildings, paved roads, people, even animals.

The characters, however, are all straight out of Noir Central Casting. Foster plays his character turned up to 11 the entire film, and while he seems to be having a blast, it means the character has no nuance. He’s a psychopath and his only redeeming characteristic is that he loves his brother, although that’s just kind of a stated fact, with nothing resembling an explanation or a background. (He shows incredible empathy for his brother, but thinks nothing of shooting strangers, security guards, cops, and so on.) Bridges does everything he can with his character, although the cop who’s one case away from retirement is about as hackneyed as the hooker with a heart of gold, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to survive this movie and who’s not.

Where Hell or High Water really clicks is the dry humor, much of it around Texas playing a bit to stereotype. When the brothers rob their second bank, there’s an older gentleman at the teller; one brother asks him if he has a gun on him, and the man replies with a combination of shock and indignation, “You’re god-damned right I have a gun.” A young punk at a gas station who can barely hold his pistol correctly gets what’s coming to him for mouthing off to the brothers. Albert gets a few zingers back at Marcus that show him to be the more erudite of the two, despite the way Marcus talks to him as some sort of noble savage.

Was this script just a noir story, though, or was writer Taylor Sheridan trying to make some bigger points about evil banks and a dying way of life on the ranch? If the latter was true, it didn’t work at all for me; it was there but entirely superficial, and if the plot itself was familiar, the Big Bad Corporation aspect is downright bromidic. Sometimes a good guys/bad guys story is just that. Let them shoot it out for themselves and leave the bigger meaning to other films.

(By the way, two “where I have a seen that actor before?” moments for me from Hell or High Water: The brothers’ lawyer is played by Kevin Rankin, who played the priest on Gracepoint, and Toby’s ex-wife is played by Marin Ireland, who briefly played an Islamist terrorist on Homeland.)

I’ve seen five of the nine Best Picture nominees so far, and this would easily be at the bottom for me, and behind a few other movies I’ve seen this year, including Loving, which I saw Saturday and will review this week as well.

Comments

  1. Hmm. I thought this was the best movie of 2016, though I haven’t seen a couple of the other best picture nominees. There’s nothing about it I didn’t love.

    Surprised you didn’t mention the score/soundtrack. I thought that, as much as anything, brought the film to life.

  2. I too was surprised by how well-received this was. I just found it utterly generic. I think the only thing about the entire film that stood out to me was when Gil Birmingham’s character got killed.

  3. Kevin Rankin as a Nazi on Breaking Bad. Come on Keith haha. That stuck out to me immediately.

    • I gave up on BB after two episodes in season two. Just didn’t enjoy anything about it other than Cranston’s performance.

    • Understood. BB had some missteps early on but to me 3-5 were almost perfect at times. Cranston of course was awesome but I also just loved the Walt/Jesse relationship. A kinda love/ hate with shit tons of manipulation haha. Good day sir.

    • Larry I in L.A.

      Keith, I honestly believe you bailed on Breaking Bad at exactly the wrong time. There is a moment late in the season where Walter White truly “breaks bad” in an irredeemable way. This act ties into the singed teddy bear fished out of the pool in the season opener in a way that I never saw coming, and sets up the mind games and tragedies that fill the remainder of the series. Unless you have a low tolerance for bad things happening to (relatively) good people, it really is a remarkable viewing experience. The third-to-last episode (named after one of my all-time favorite poems, Ozymandias) may be the greatest hour-long TV episode in history.

    • 100% agree with Larry. I loved the whole show, but can absolutely understand why the first two seasons wouldn’t necessarily appeal. That said, the third season is fantastic, the fourth is even better, and the second half of season five is the best eight episodes of TV I’ve ever seen, including, as Larry said, maybe the best episode of any series, ever. If only based on the emotional response to the show, it is the best overall show for me, just ahead of The Wire

  4. I believe this movie was filmed almost entirely in New Mexico, not in west Texas.

  5. Appreciate this review! I personally really enjoyed this film on a rewatch. On the 2nd time through, the relationship between the rangers and the relationship between the brothers really popped. And I felt that last scene between one of each was pretty dang powerful. I’d agree with your assessment of lack of originality, but still think Sheridan executes well and in my mind, is well-deserving of the Oscar nomination.

    Will you be releasing your full ranking of the Oscar noms and/or 2016 films at some point? I’d be interested to see how they fall.

    • I will, probably Oscar weekend. I still want to see three more of the BP nominees (I won’t see Hacksaw Ridge), one more documentary (I’m at 3/5), and five other movies up for other stuff.

  6. I think in a way its ordinariness is responsible for its acclaim — stories of unexceptional people getting in over their heads (especially with the Western overlay) were once a common staple at the movies. Not so much anymore, so this was a refreshing change of pace.

  7. Larry I in L.A.

    I fully respect your opinion on this, but I hope your readers heed the beginning of your second sentence: “It’s incredibly entertaining”. I’m an Independent Spirit Award voter (translation: I paid the $95 annual membership fee to Film Independent, which includes voting rights), and there are only so many beautifully-crafted but long and somber films like Manchester By The Sea that you can sit through without the occasional burst of action or comedy.

    • I thought Manchester by the Sea had a lot of very funny lines and moments, even though the movie itself is very somber (even depressing). But yes, I agree that this is a movie most folks will enjoy watching, and I hope the review doesn’t deter anyone from doing so.

  8. I think Kevin Rankin is best known as Devil on the still underrated Justified. Keith, can’t remember if you’ve ever had any thoughts on it….

  9. Why won’t you see Hacksaw Ridge?

  10. Ben Foster has some great lines in this movie. He is definitely playing this role like he needed to eat every scene or else he’d lose is paycheck, but he pulls off most of it for me.

    • I feel like that’s normal for Ben Foster (an actor I really like, btw, so that’s not a knock on him); he either plays incredibly understated or completely over the top characters, but he usually does both quite well

  11. Man, I hated this movie. Every single character is a variant of “life has shit on me so many times that I don’t trust anyone, and I look like a fucking hawk because I squint at everyone all the time.” Also, the goddamn overuse of the yellow and blue filters–hamfisted to the extreme in a Soderbergh kind of way.

  12. Christian Williams

    I think your review is pretty much spot on. The whole exceeds the sum of it’s parts…meaning the movie is quite enjoyable despite it’s use of typical Western tropes. Chris Pine put on an excellent performance, elevating him to an acceptable actor in my book and Bridges’ performance is good but not Oscar worthy. We’ve seen this character from him a few times.

    Seems like this is the token Western the Academy has been putting up as of late: The Revenant (deservedly); American Sniper (not so much}; 12 Years a Slave; Django Unchained; True Grit, etc.

    Having seen four of the Best Picture Nominees so far, this one is competing with Lion for the bottom. Though, I still have a number to go.

  13. Ha! Not in a geographical or even Genre sense but in tone…same with American Sniper

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