Sunday, February 5, 2017
Texas Watch: Hell or High Water (2016)
If you've seen the trailer for this movie, and you think that maybe you have a rough idea of what this movie will be like - bingo. You are correct.
Hell or High Water (2016) is currently nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, which is maybe the surest sign that the Academy is comprised of white people over the age of 65. A post No Country for Old Men meditation on justice in the sun-baked desert plains of West Texas, it's an enjoyable enough way to spend the run-time of a movie. But with no non-standard plot turns or character moments, a movie where the sub-text of the film is text, it's the sort of thing that's been done better elsewhere (see the movie named at the beginning of this sentence) and has characters walking a path of moral uncertainty enough that you can say it has some edge to it.
That said, I didn't actually dislike Hell or High Water. It's a fine movie with characters you'll enjoy (I've seen these same characters done a few dozen times, and if you're going to do those characters, this is pretty good), a decent plot, and if you like Chris Pine (I do!) and Jeff Bridges (what sort of psychopath doesn't like Jeff Bridges?), I've got a movie I'd say you can watch comfortably with your dad. Or, better yet, your sibling.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers - two guys from the no-man's land west of Central Texas, stretching from Alpine to Amarillo.* We catch up with them in-media-res as they knock over a bank and then a second bank in shit-kicker small towns. This draws the attention of the Texas Rangers who dispatch Jeff Bridges (of course due to retire, like, the next day) and his partner, Gil Birmingham (one of those "that guy!" actors).
We learn the boys are stealing money from the same bank that is trying to foreclose on their land thanks to a reverse mortgage obtained to pay for their mother's healthcare. She's passed, but now we need to pass that land on to Pine's sons.
While it's not exactly the case that these guys are heroes to the locals (the entirety of the movie takes place in about 72 hours), none of the locals cares much if the bank gets robbed. After all, they're all dealing with the economy of rural America, whether a rancher or a diner waitress (yes, I was delighted to see Katy Mixon), and they're all aware the clock is ticking for all of them before the bank catches up.
It's not a movie that paints anyone as exactly a good guy or bad guy. A Texas Ranger is going to enforce the law and not care much about motives when someone's brandishing a pistol in a teenage bank teller's face. Desperation and a dream of legacy drives Pine and his brother. And we do get one of the best speeches in the film from Burmingham's half-Comanche/ half-Hispanic Ranger who talks a bit about losing what you think you own.
While mostly a broad caricature of Texas (especially West Texas), and a story that could have taken place anywhere outside of the cities in the US, the movie does contain some insidery stuff for Texans (including an utterly believable throw-away line about Dr. Pepper vs. Mr. Pibb). And tries to indulge in some "aren't old racist men cute" stuff that... man... Frankly, it doesn't ring very true to how people in Texas talk to each other. Especially across racial lines. Bridges would have had his teeth knocked out or been dealing with a lawsuit. Maybe back in the 70's or 1980's, but in the last twenty years...
And a moment that must have looked good on paper, but comes off as weirdly poseur-ish as Ben foster confronts a guy in a casino.
I've seen Texas written well by folks with not-much connection to the place, and sometimes that outsider's perspective gives them insight we'd never notice living here. Hell, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher may understand more about the Texas spirit than a good chunk of the Texas History Museum down the street from my office. But I'm not sure this particular Scotsman quite nailed it, even if he had a pretty good feel for the destitution that you see out there driving across Texas outside the cities.
The portrayal of women in the movie is straight out of noir-chauvinism, and I'll leave it at that. In a movie with no heroes, it's also not a movie trying to suggest any innate moral light is coming from the few women who appear, either.
Apparently Nick Cave and Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis (not the one who does comics, I believe), have been doing scores for nouveau westerns and the recent TV mini series, Mars. Punctuating the score, you'll hear some Texas singer songwriters to add some genuine flavor. So, yeah, expect a dollop of Townes Van Zandt to get your Texas bona fides.
I read that this script was highly sought-after and bid upon, and I guess maybe that makes some sense from a "here's something with some indie feel to it, but still highly marketable" sort of appeal. It just doesn't have much in the way of originality or spirit to suggest it's a must-see. And I have no idea why it's listed as a Best Picture nominee, but I'm not the target audience for those awards.
A movie that was good enough, but... I dunno. Sometimes I see one of these critical darlings and I'm not sure me and the reviewer saw the same movie.
*we can talk some other time about suddenly coming upon the weirdo border metropolis of El Paso after hours of nothing some other time