Friday, November 04, 2016

OVP: Hell or High Water (2016)

Film: Hell or High Water (2016)
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Director: David Mackenzie
Oscar History: 4 nominations (Best Picture, Editing, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor-Jeff Bridges)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

The western genre has, as an adult, become one of my favorites as I've grown older.  When I was a child, my picture of the western was a bit colored, as all I knew of it was a series of seemingly copycat John Wayne movies, with him strutting around, that signature drawl intact, and saving a series of beautiful brunettes (and Maureen O'Hara).  It was predictable, pleasant, but not really art.  However, really the western came alive later in Wayne's career (though his magnum opus, The Searchers, is a brilliant and near-perfect example of the genre), and afterwards.  People such as Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, the Coen Brothers, and Ang Lee would tackle different tropes of the western, crushing them with the ideas of New Hollywood and giving us an excellent run of movies, culminating in westerns now, at least in their neo-stage, being an almost annual affair, frequently giving us the nastiness of the west in a new era.

(Spoilers Ahead) Hell or High Water features that rethinking of the classic western.  It borrows in many ways from No Country for Old Men, particularly in the way that it frames Texas as an almost alien landscape, foreign to anyone that doesn't call it home (Giles Nuttgens should send Roger Deakins a thank you note if he wins more work for this, which he should).  The film follows two brothers, Toby (Pine), level-headed and pragmatic, and Tanner (Foster), risky and erratic.  They are robbing a series of banks, all connected to the same company that is trying to foreclose on their ranch, and are being tracked by an aging pair of rangers Hamilton (Bridges) and Parker (Birmingham) who are relatively light-hearted about the deeds, until they begin to turn deadly in an extended shootout sequence, with both Tanner and Parker getting killed, but not before Toby is able to get away and complete the crime, winning back his ranch and estranged ex-wife & children in the process.  The film ends with Hamilton and Toby getting into a bit of a verbal threat match, though subdued since Toby's sons are nearby, promising that someday soon they will meet, and likely one of them will die in the process.

The film is well-crafted and actually quite strong, living up to the reviews which promised a fine experience.  The movie is occasionally predictable, particularly once we get toward the end (it's clear that final bank robbery is going to go poorly, and that both Parker and Tanner are going to die before the film is up), but it's well-modulated and usually simmers at the perfect boil, making this western a thriller where you aren't quite sure how Toby specifically will get away with the crime, and whether he'll be happy or sad with the results (the film ends with Toby not sure of that either, but not in a way that feels unfulfilling).

The film's actors are all uniformly strong.  Jeff Bridges may well get an Oscar nomination for his work here, and though it's the sort of thing Bridges can do in his sleep, there are moments (particularly that final sequence with Pine, which is dynamite-it always helps my critical opinion when a movie has a great ending), when you see the master class in acting that he's been for all of these years.  Pine continues to deliver on the promise he had in Into the Woods; it's nice that, even though he's now found promise in comedy, he's not entirely willing to abandon drama ala Jon Hamm, another ridiculously handsome man who seems to be able to do both.  I was initially a bit flummoxed by his appeal, but he's grown on me and seems to genuinely want to be a better actor than I first assumed he would be.  Ben Foster, one of those unsung heroes of character acting who will eventually win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (ala JK Simmons), is also great, though nowhere near his western perfection in 3:10 to Yuma.

All-in-all, this is one of the better films I've seen in 2016, and definitely worth checking out.  If you've already gone there, share your thoughts in the comments.  Do you enjoy the western renaissance the past ten years have brought?  Do you also agree that Chris Pine is continually growing as a screen presence?  And how rocking was this film's soundtrack?

No comments: