So once again we have survived.

Hell or High Water

tn_hellorhighwaterHELL OR HIGH WATER is one of these contemporary westerns, sort of a NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN fan film about two brothers robbing banks and two old Texas Rangers trying to catch them. It starts from the perspective of Toby (Chris Pine, SMOKIN’ ACES) and Tanner (Ben Foster, X-MEN 3) driving through barren stretches of country highway robbing banks in tiny, impoverished towns from Texas to Oklahoma, in between being brothers, annoying each other, talking around painful shit from their pasts, etc.

They did not cast against type. Tanner is the Mr. Blonde, yelling at and pistol whipping bank employees, causing scenes, screwing a hooker in the same hotel room while his poor brother lays wincing and facing the wall. I think this guy’s gonna be trouble. And Toby is the thief with a heart of gold, or at least the one who looks humanely through his ski mask with big blue sympathetic eyes and isn’t a jerk when a waitress (Katy Mixon from East Bound and Down) has a nice talk with him.

Tanner, we learn, is an ex-con, but Toby has a clean record, and we piece together that this is all part of a master plan to (spoiler?) keep his parents’ farm from being foreclosed so he can give it to his sons, even though he’s kind of estranged from them.

Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who takes the case rather than just dick around on his last days before retirement (uh oh!). He brings along Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, THE LONE RANGER, both 2003 and 2013 versions), who spends the entire movie fuming about Marcus’s constant jabs at his Comanche and Mexican heritage. Maybe they have some kind of friendship deep down, but on the surface it could not be more clear that he cannot wait for this unfunny racist shit bag to get the fuck out of the office so he never has to spend a day in a car or a night in a hotel room or an afternoon on the porch of a restaurant staring at a bank across the street with him ever again.

mp_hellorhighwaterBridges is, of course, great, playing kind of a slow guy closer to Rooster Cogburn than most of his other characters. (No biodigital jazz in this one.) There is some serious mumbling in this movie, both by him and marble-mouthed Foster. It’s a mumblecore movie, which is a name for a type of movie where there is a lack of volume or enunciation as an intentional artistic choice and sometimes there are sideburns or mustaches as well.

In many ways it feels like a real western, with its sunny, dusty, wide open plains, its slow travel, its banks that not many people use, it even has a few shootouts. But also there are cars and strip malls and country western music.

I think there’s a little bit of a satire of gun culture here. I believe there are three different scenes where the mythical “good guy with a gun” tries to stop a bank robbery, never with very positive results. First it’s the old man who they know has a gun, but they don’t take it from him, and he chases after them and busts off some shots. Then it’s a customer who has a concealed gun and tries to shoot them in a bank full of innocent bystanders. Then it’s the five pickup trucks full of vigilantes. That was where I wasn’t sure it was credible. This bank hostage has a phone but instead of calling police texts her dad, who shows up in like 30 seconds with a fuckin militia. What, did they happen to be polishing their weapons across the street?

And I would like to think that once these dudes – who by the way are so rural that one of them knows a random, useless rocky hill next to a road out in the middle of nowhere “like the back of my hand” – showed up trying to save the daughter, they would still have the common sense not to follow the armed robbers. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe these people really do want to shoot people so bad they will go far beyond the line of reason for a chance to do it. Like how guys will turn real, real stupid chasing an opportunity to get laid. These guys have gun boners.

Is that a real thing? If not maybe it’s worth stretching the truth for the visual punchline it builds up to.

These are all good performances and interesting characters. Alberto is probly the one I relate to most. His patient but exasperated way of dealing with Marcus’s foolishness is very funny. Marcus should listen to him more and should learn to not annoy the shit out of his co-worker. It’s common courtesy. But since he’s the boss he’s the most active one and sort of the main protagonist. And it is a joy just to watch the laid back way he does his job and the things he says to amuse himself, not really others.

And what’s really interesting is when he finally (spoiler?) catches up to the brothers. You sympathize with them too, because of their motives, but once there are guns pointed both ways you become a Texas Ranger. Because fuck these guys. Tanner seems like maybe he’s supposed to be a little more of a noble outlaw than I take him for, or maybe that’s only in his own mind. But his crazy last act choice makes for some good, tense drama. I was caught between enjoying seeing all hell breaking loose and thinking, “oh, come on Marcus, get this guy.”

But when Marcus (okay this is definitely a spoiler, you can skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it) separately comes face to face with Toby that’s a real shift in perspective because throughout this thing Toby has gotten away with being portrayed as the nice boy. Now all the sudden he’s pointing a gun at an old retiree and making insinuations. And at this point he’s gotten away with it, he doesn’t have his farm and his boys to protect, just himself. Most importantly, Marcus is correct that his friend was killed for the plan Toby put into motion. He can’t stay morally distanced from it just because his crazy brother pulled the trigger. He was the one that unleashed him and pointed him in that direction.

The director is David Mackenzie, known for YOUNG ADAM, HALLAM FOE and STARRED UP, among many others. I’m not familiar with his other work, but it makes sense to learn this is from a Scottish director. I think it’s meant to be a pretty naturalistic look at the south, but it feels a tiny bit exoticized to me, a cast of guys from the coasts getting excited about wearing western shirts and getting sweaty. I’ve long been a fan of Ben Foster and his… effortful acting, let’s call it. He was a young actor who really got into his roles and tried to transform himself, even chewing up a role like the Jan Michael Vincent character in the remake of THE MECHANIC. But then god damn Ryan Gosling came along, did the same type of shit, but while being more handsome, seems like he took the other kid’s career. So I’m glad to see Ben Foster back playing a weirdo wizard in WARCRAFT and now in this acclaimed movie where he might even get awards consideration and what not. Good to have a new generation of great character actors.

But, uh, I have to admit that the seams show a little bit on this one. It’s really fun to see him puff his chest out and hear him spit redneck patter R. Lee Ermey style, but… I also can’t help but picture these two talking to a West Texas consultant who teaches them how to squint and comb their mustaches. If I’m being honest there’s something overly self conscious about Foster’s portrayal of southern machismo that feels a little too big for this movie.

Don't mind us, we're just a couple of southern boys southerning it up in the south.
Don’t mind us, we’re just a couple of southern boys southerning it up in the south.

And I feel like there are other aspects of the movie that are just as posturing. I don’t think they need to be so on the nose with their themes of rural economic blight. They’re killing them pretty softly here, if you get my drift.

Okay, that’s not fair, it’s subtle and unobtrusive compared to that movie, but I still think it’s too much. In the opening shot the camera floats past graffiti that says “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” which could not help but set off my “oh jesus here we go” alarms and interfere with the subsequent montage of driving past “going out of business” signs. The robbers, the cops, and an actual guy who works at a bank all make speeches about how the banks are the real bad guys. Most of the rest of the people in the movie who are not anti-bank-robber gun vigilantes practice a stop-snitching policy and mention reasons why they hate the bank. Laying it on thick.

I mean, this is a movie where the introductory shot of the about-to-retire cop is of him holding a paper that says “Mandatory Retirement Notice” in big bold letters at the top. In a certain way this is misdirection, and I know you have to take short cuts in storytelling, not everything has to be documentary realism. But to me this kind of laughably phony short-hand clashes a little with the overall quiet, unsensationalized style of the movie, the thing that makes it appealing.

The motif of relations between white people and Native Americans (displayed in conversations with Alberto, in in Indian casino where Tanner gets into a heated discussion with a guy who says he’s a Comanche, and later when he refers back to that conversation) is no less subtle than the economic recovery stuff, but at least it’s a little cryptic, so you gotta think about it. The script by Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) was originally called COMANCHERIA, which is kinda good and would’ve tipped off the pretentious side of the movie. But HELL OR HIGH WATER sounds much cooler. They made the right decision there.

Another movie this reminded me of was OUT OF THE FURNACE with Christian Bale. That was another one that was all about a great cast, a crime story set in a particular region, with ex-cons and war veterans and no good jobs and generations of poverty and desperation. I think OUT OF THE FURNACE did a much better job of making it feel like this is the world this takes place in instead of DON’T YOU SEE, I HAVE AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO GET ACROSS TO YOU PEOPLE.

On the other hand, HELL OR HIGH WATER feels like a more complete, satisfying story. Which is important. And Bridges cuts through it all. Bridges builds bridges across the labored messages and into your heart. Despite my quibbles, this is a pretty good one.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 8th, 2016 at 11:47 am and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

35 Responses to “Hell or High Water”

  1. > I also can’t help but picture these two talking to a West Texas consultant who teaches them how to squint and comb their mustaches.

    Honestly, as someone who has spent a good bit of time in the South, it’s this aspect which has kinda put me off watching this movie despite the good reviews. Too bad there are no actual actors from the South who could have played these roles, and they had to get some pretty boy Californians (and a Bostonian) and have them do fake accents. A real shame, but what can you do? I guess the Californians are looking for jobs now that all the good roles are going to Brits with fake American accents.

    Anyway this sounds good and I’m gonna see it at least for the Nick Cave score, but couldn’t they at least get Billy Bob Thornton in there somewhere?

  2. I get the same vibe, Subtlety. This movie isn’t getting praised by the right kind of people for me to be all that excited about it. It seems like it’s most enjoyed by people who don’t normally enjoy this type of thing and treated with shrugged shoulders by people who do (Vern included). So maybe I’m just being a snob but that makes me feel like it’s a Sundance simulation of badass cinema, not the real thing. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s the sense I get.

  3. I was looking forward to this, but the comparison to Out of the Furnace really scares me. That movie had interesting trappings but ultimately I found it super boring, a movie that kept threatening to get exciting but then always decided against it.

  4. I liked it a lot, but don’t get your hopes up about the Nick Cave score. It sounds like leftovers from his Assassination of Jesse James score. Nothing original about it, as far as I could tell. There are also some strange needle drops, especially the end song which felt like it undermined the scene that came before it. I really had no other quibbles I can think of. It’s a solid, fun movie.

  5. Also, any movie that gets compared to KILLING ME SOFTLY is suspect. The book (COGAN’S TRADE by the great, great George V. Higgins) had none of that political crap that tried to turn a perfectly self-sufficient little crime tale into an allegory. That movie thinks its so fucking smart that it needs to explain to us dum-dums the secret meaning of material that speaks for itself. It was like it was embarrassed to “just” be a solid genre movie and had to let everyone know that it was better than that. Fuck that shit. Don’t coddle me with a moral in a genre that knows morals are for babies.

  6. I really liked this one. It touches on all the heist-movie cliches but it doesn’t smash them over your head. I like Ben Foster a lot, even dug him in the Lance Armstrong bio-pic that wittered away last year.

  7. But who knows, I might go see it tomorrow for my birthday movie anyway. It’s either that or BAD MOMS. Shit is dire out here in the burbs.

  8. Happy B-day, Majestyk. Hope it’s a good one.

  9. Based on your comments it seems like I’ve done the movie a disservice, so let me clarify. I mentioned KILLING ME SOFTLY to say that it is not nearly as bad in that regard. I think it should be more subtle but it doesn’t feel like it’s telling you and the genre you love to go fuck themselves. I brought up OUT OF THE FURNACE to say that although I like that movie’s less preachy approach to the themes, this is a much more exciting and satisfying story.

    I think if you see it you will find that it is somewhere between your low expectations and the high praise it has been receiving. I bet most people here will like it.

  10. If you enjoy prison movies (and I know you do) then do yourself a favor and watch Starred Up. Its one on the greatest prison movies ever made. No bullshit

  11. Skin: Thanks, man. Last year of my thirties. Better make it count [fires up Blu-ray of JOHN WICK for like the 12th time]

    Vern: Yeah, that sounds reasonable. Thanks for clarifying. I think I’ll probably just wait for video. Doesn’t seem like the added scrutiny of the big screen experience will do much for my enjoyment. I’ll let you know if BAD MOMS pans out.

  12. Contrary to what autocorrect is telling you, I was thanking Skani for the birthday wishes, not Internet boobmonger Mr. Skin, with whom I am on a last-name basis like prep school kids in a movie about an elite secret murder society.

  13. I really dug this one, although it maybe has a few too many shots of those skeezy billboards you sometimes see offering some sort of terrible deal with the devil like a cash advance at insane interest rates or what have you. Although, I guess the movie was shot in New Mexico, so if those billboards are real then I can forgive the director for wanting to throw in a few shots taken from the real world that clearly illustrate what the film is about.

    Overall, the themes didn’t bother me. There were a couple of things that prevented it from being too on the nose for my taste. One, the film isn’t embarrassed to be a genre picture. It really does deliver when it comes to action and dialogue. Two, I think it digs a little deeper into some of the film’s moral conundrums. Any thinking viewer is genuinely torn between the cops and robbers. Intellectually, you know you should root for the police officers, but you can’t help but hope the brothers make it through with their plan. Three, I think they smartly bring up the idea of intergenerational poverty as well some other clever themes in the film that I thought added some shading to the issue of economic inequality.

  14. Yeah, merry birthday. Also, watching JOHN WICK on your birthday is a great idea. I may have done that last year myself, but I don´t really remember. But it is a tradition worth having.

  15. Happy birthday Majestyk – I hope whatever movie you end up celebrating your big day with is worthy of the occasion. And if that movie happens to be BAD MOMS then I’ll be keen to hear if you agree with pretty much everyone I know who has seen it and who can’t stop talking about how it is far, far better than it has any right to be.

  16. I’ll take Mr. Skin. Suits my B-movie villain aspirations.

  17. HALLAM FOE and STARRED UP are both weird and great, and PERFECT SENSE was close to my favorite movie that year. Will definitely watch what this guy does next with great interest.

  18. Happy birthday Mr. M! Good luck with the Bad Moms!

  19. I now feel like an asshole for not wishing Majestyk a happy birthday in my last post, so happy birthday! Also, I hope Bad Moms is good.

  20. I was not expecting all this fuss, but thanks, you guys. BAD MOMS wasn’t really doing the trick for me either so I opted to take myself to Best Buy for my birthday movie this year. Got HARD TARGET 2 and the new Shout Factory special edition of MIDNIGHT RUN. So things are looking pretty swell from my angle.

  21. I will also wish Mr. Majestyk happy birthday. Look on the bright side, you’re that much closer to being able to file for social security! Also next year when you hit the 4-O, you can start qualifying for old grizzled badass!

  22. RBatty, you are an asshole. How do you live with yourself?

  23. Crushinator Jones

    September 9th, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Hey Majestyk, Happy Birthday my dude. I always enjoy readin’ ya, so even though it’s your birthday I get the present. :)

  24. Thank god for time zones, otherwise I would have missed Majestyk’s birthday by 1 hour.

    Happy Birthday, man.

  25. Good choice, Majestyk. No one can be grumpy while watching MIDNIGHT RUN, even on their birthday. And in related news, happy birthday.

  26. Majestyk, best wishes, hombre. Your authorial, knowledgeable generosity around here is second only to Vern. Appreciate all your sharing. :)

  27. MR MAJESTYK 4.0. Happy birthday, young man!

  28. Hope you had a good one, Mr M. You’re a cool cat.

  29. Skani – It’s difficult sometimes.

  30. I’ll third darth brooks and MrGusk on STARRED UP. It avoids most cliches of the prison genre – the hope of redemption and/or escape, and butt-raping, and instead focuses on an unusual father-son prisoner relationship, two generations of abandonment and violence, meeting head-on in the hellhole of prison.

    As for HOHW, which I’ve yet to see, I find the whole foreign-director-putting-his-spin-on-other-country’s-beloved-genre exercise hit or miss. Most recently, Scottish guy John McLean’s SLOW WEST with Fassbender was a bit pretentious and just didn’t excite me as either a western or an arthouse oddity, where it was trying too hard to be quirky.

    A rare exception where it worked would be Wenders PARIS TEXAS, beautiful and poetic.

    As an Australian I find it interesting when a foreign director takes on our country. Canadian Ted Kotcheff doing WAKE IN FRIGHT for example, implying that Aussie’s live in dust-bowls, and spend all day drinking beer and blowing the heads off kangaroos. Which is total bullshit. We only kill roos on weekends when we want to throw a kanga steak on the barbie, right next to the bloody shrimp. Mate.

  31. Gentlemen, I am legitimately touched by all this attention from all over the world. I was feeling kind of iffy about this birthday but you guys helped make it a good one.

    Also, MIDNIGHT RUN helped. Seriously, every line in that movie is quotable, but I have a special fondness for everything Dennis Farina says to Philip Baker Hall.

    “Sidney, relax. Have a cream soda. Everything’s gonna be all over with in a few minutes.”

    “Don’t say a word to me, Sidney, don’t say a fuckin’ word to me. I’ll get up and I’ll bury this telephone in your head.”

    “Sidney, sit down, relax, have a sandwich, drink a glass of milk, do some fuckin’ thing.”

    I used to say “Relax, have a creme soda” all the time but I forgot about it. “Do some fuckin’ thing” is so deep in my lexicon, though, that I forgot where I got it from.

    MIDNIGHT RUN is a pretty good movie in my opinion.

  32. You mean when you’re not surfing, eating Vegemite and drinking beer, right?

  33. Maggie – Oh yeah I forgot, we put Vegemite on our kangaroo sandwiches. It softens the gamey flavor of roo meat. They are tough bastards to chew on. :)

  34. I hadn’t thought of that convenience with the mob of gunmen scene. I guess I figured the woman texted her dad and he had a sort of phone tree of gunmen so the ones in the area came out to play. I have seen many gun people utterly convinced that if they were allowed to carry guns, they would save the day in a gunfight. Nothing will convince them otherwise until they are in that situation and get themselves or other innocents shot. So I liked that scene but now I’m rethinking it. Also the lack of subtlety didn’t bother me because I am so on the brothers’ side against the banks, but don’t be robbing banks people.

    Also “Bridges bridges bridges” is some fine writing. I would also accept “Bridges Bridges Bridges Bridges Bridges” for no reason.

    Starred Up is great. I should watch his others.

    Happy belated, Majestyk. In your honor I downloaded the Bronson movie to my Amazon Fire Tablet. I’m also in your boat come November.

  35. So I finally got around to this one, and Vern was right: It was somewhere between my low expectations and the high praise it received. It had more action and humor than I was expecting, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t completely zone out for about a half-hour in between bank heists. I didn’t hear a word Chris Pine said to his wife in that one scene, and I didn’t even notice the part with the hooker Vern brought up. I don’t think I missed anything. These characters are so archetypal that I understood everything I needed to know about them from their first scenes. That stuff was just to give them some business to do in the part where it drags in the middle that every movie has.

    All in all, it’s a decent movie but it feels like a drawer script. You know, when a screenwriter makes a splash with something (in this case SICARIO) so they ask him, “Hey, what else you got?” But it took him years to write that script everybody likes, so he doesn’t have anything new ready to go while the iron is hot, so he reaches into a drawer and pulls out a script he wrote back in the day while he was still learning his craft. It’s a little simpler and a lot clumsier than the script he got famous for, but now he’s got some cred so they don’t change the clunky parts because they’re gonna market the movie as “from the writer of THAT OTHER MOVIE” and they have to treat his every word like the work of a genius.

    But it came out okay. It’s a good script, even if some of the purple prose was a bit of a stretch. It was kinda TEXAS NOIR FOR DUMMIES but I Iiked it.

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