Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hellish Thoughts

If I had seen Hell or High Water during its theatrical run months ago, I'm not sure I would have thought as much of it. Having seen it more recently, I think I appreciate it more -- but not because of the bit of awards buzz it's been gathering.

Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers: Toby, a divorced father of two, and Tanner, an ex-con. Desperate for money to save their family farm, they embark on a series of bank robberies. Soon they're pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers, one on his last case before he retires and hands the reins over to the other.

So, not to go too far down a "think piece" kind of road here... but since the election of Donald Trump as president, a lot of pundits have embraced the narrative of the poor white voter: suffering just like impoverished people of color, but overlooked in the focus on minorities. Hell or High Water is in no way a politically charged film, and race is not its central issue. But it is all about what desperate acts people will turn to for lack of money, and I can't help but feel this movie plays differently now in that post-election narrative.

This theme of desperation plays out again and again in the movie, and not just with the two brothers who turn to robbing banks. Multiple one- or two-scene characters rail against how they too are kept down by the powers that be. The Texas Rangers never do anything questionable in their investigation, yet are largely made the heavies of the piece both by other characters and the script itself. The movie's original title, Comancheria, was a nod to a scene between Tanner and a man of Comanche descent -- an exchange I won't spoil, but which also reflects on the theme of systemic subjugation.

I think there's room for comparisons between this movie and No Country for Old Men. As that's an Oscar Best Picture winner (and a Coen Brothers movie to boot), I imagine most people will find this movie coming up short in such a comparison. For me, Hell or High Water is actually the better experience. Both films have two concurrent plots about the criminals and the lawman chasing them; this is the movie that I think integrates those two threads better. And in my mind, it's certainly the movie that has the more effective social commentary.

It might just have the better performances too. While it's true that nothing in Hell or High Water approaches the chilling specter of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, there is an across-the-board consistency here. Chris Pine plays Toby, and while the movie is absolutely trading on his charm and looks as a starting point for audience sympathy, his performance has plenty of depth on its own. Ben Foster is excellent as the screw-up brother, in turns noble and despicable. Jeff Bridges is perfect casting for the retiring Texas Ranger, and Gil Birmingham is great as the partner (outwardly) eager to be rid of him.

All that said, though a lot of this movie feels true, I also felt the hands of the writer and director deliberately manipulating the strings. The movie offers plenty to think about, but not many moments that made me feel much emotion. And its "stick it to man" ethos crumbles a bit in the face of the collateral damage that begins to mount up, damage that rises to a level higher than the moral ambiguity I think they were aiming for.

Good but not great, I'd give Hell or High Water a B.

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