Hell or High Water

2016 crime drama

Rating: 17/20

Plot: Two brothers resort to robbing a bunch of branches of the same bank in order to collect money to save the family ranch. Jeffrey Lebowski finds himself involved.

How lucky are we to get two Coen brother movies in the same calendar year? A witty comedy and then one of their grittier, more philosophical and deeply American things. Wait, this isn't a Coen brothers' movie? Are you sure? It's got Jeff Bridges in it, and he's playing the same sort of character that Tommy Lee Jones played in No Country for Old Men. It's got dialogue that seems like it's straight out of a Coen brothers' movie. It's got surprising violence. It's got an ending that a lot of people won't like. It's even got a freakin' Townes Van Zandt song in it! How can you have a movie with Jeff Bridges and a Townes Van Zandt song that isn't a Coen brothers' movie?

Nope, this is David Mackenzie directing a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Looking up Mackenzie, I'm noticing that he's from England which doesn't seem right since this is such a distinctly American movie. Maybe that's easy to do though. Just set it in West Texas and have Bridges grumble all his lines and have characters shooting each other, and you've got something that looks American. The setting for a good American movie like this is usually as important as the characters. I'm thinking movies like Paris, Texas or any of those New York Scorsese movies or something like that. Here, it's all about dust, good old American dust. That's what Americans do best, after all. We sit around and let our skin flake off into the air and become dust. It's a circle of life sort of thing. Hell or High Water starts with a great continuous circular shot of Small Town, America, completely uninhabited except for a woman walking into her work. We see a blue car pass by, ominous only because there's more than likely a character driving it and it would be the only other living person in the vicinity. It's a great shot, and I was hooked immediately.

The very best thing about the movie is the color though, and that color comes mostly from the fringe characters. Bridges is really great. He wears curmudgeon well, and he does so much with his body language here that it shows an understanding of the character that extends decades before the movie takes place. I like his rapport with his partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham. And the Howard brothers are good anti-heroes or whatever you might be tempted to call them. Chris Pine, because he's quiet, is more difficult to figure out. You don't know exactly where his head is at. Ben Foster's brother, the more manic of the two, is easier to understand because of his contradictions. Those characters are all great, but it's the fringe characters--the sassy waitresses of this world--that add all the color.

This is the second Nick Cave and Warren Ellis scored movie I've written about in the last two days. What they do is about perfect for this neo-Western genre, timeless plucks of scarred guitars and notes from tired pianos. It works because it blends.

Only the Coens, and apparently the writing/directing team of Sheridan/Mackenzie, can create something that seems so very real while at the same time feels like it's the sort of thing that can only happen in a movie. It's the kind of story that you know isn't going to wind up happy for every single character, and it's also the kind where you just can't take your eyes off it. The terrific dialogue, the bleak West Texas landscape, the rapport of the performers, and the tense situations peppered throughout just totally grip you and refuse to let go until the end, one that leaves you pondering what the whole thing was really about and what is likely to happen next. My guess: Everybody's way too tired for any more shenanigans.

1 comment:

cory said...

Some movies are absolutely perfect for their time. At the beginning we see some graffiti about war veterans coming home to no help and a landscape that is nearly silent and littered with the corpses of unused businesses rotting in the unrelenting sun, and billboards aimed at the economic losers in today's America.

Everyone shines in this. The supporting characters, the perfectly balanced contribution from the four main actors, and every small bit part- even the ones that will make the NRA cheer- add something to the story and mood. While not flashy, "Hell or High Water" is everything you could want from this kind of film. The dialogue is alternately dark and humorous, but without a wasted line. I liked the ending...and the middle and beginning, for that matter. Just like in our world, there are real life and death stakes for people who have been cheated and forgotten by the times. There is enough gray to see both sides of this story, but the ending reminds us that anyone can be driven to make black and white choices. This may not end up my favorite film of the year, but it is right now. An 18.