Hollywood is a strange place. It bombards you with marketing materials 24/7, always promising the next best, biggest and brightest, only to deliver on best and/or brightest with less regularity than a really good Major League Baseball batting average (say .400, or 40%). And that’s pure, naïve optimism, to believe it’s that high. There are a lot of misses out there. They keep swinging, and they keep, by and large missing. Hence, with the marketing bonanza and promise of low returns, it’s easy to miss that something even exists. And it’s easy to know nothing about a sleeper hit that delivers what is so often promised but very rarely realized: an enjoyable and smart cinematic experience. Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, delivers and then some: it steps to the plate, points at the bleachers beyond the outfield, and dares you to try to throw it something it can’t hit out of the park.
Hell or High Water
Directors: David Mackenzie
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Now that we’ve concluded the metaphorical segment of my review, let’s cut to it. Hell or High Water doesn’t feel like a big summer release: it’s lacking the fanfare. Missing are the big stars (though Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges are well known to audiences), the big director, and the $50 million marketing budget. Despite that, it delivers where other films don’t. It is not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a re-make. It is not a high-powered adaptation. It is in no way a teenaged dystopian vision of the future.
What it is, is a plodding, methodical beast that sinks its fangs in gritty, dim reality and eats. Set in Texas and shot on location in New Mexico, the film feels real. Even ‘pretty boy’ regulars Foster and Pine feel grimier than usual. Early reviewers lamented that they’d dirtied the pair by adding gritty facial hair or mustaches. I beg to differ. Pine, and actor I’m not usually a huge fan of, predominantly (I suspect) to his being a pretty boy, is at times nearly not even recognizable as the less stable of a pair of highly unstable brothers. And Foster appears to have pulled a Bale and gained weight for the film, that or it was happy coincidence as he too (with seemingly thinner hair) appears as a character played by him, but a less recognizable version of him.
The story is two-fold: story 1 follows a pair of wayward brothers who start robbing banks to save their family’s farm. Story 2 follows a pair of Texas rangers trying to stop them. Cops and robbers is not a new tale, so when you find it told in a fresh manner, it’s perhaps, particularly invigorating. The film finds ways to approach the subject freshly, whether it’s in the subdued, sometimes lacking score, or in the clean, muted hues of blue, green and yellow that embody the Midwest landscape, drama, and mood. The film does not get embroiled in kneejerk cuts and editing. It follows logical progression, much like the dialogue follows logical progression. When the local extras open their mouths to speak, I don’t know for certain that they’re speaking as Texan would, I’ve not spent enough time there to know. But I imagine they are, and that’s what matters.
Mackenzie’s vision for Hell or High Water seems to take a page from another simply concocted bit of western realism (or at least its best high notes), 2007’s No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. They’re similarly deliberate creatures, which is what I meant by plodding earlier. Each step is thought out, and each step is meant to be impactful, even when the action is minimal. Such it is when a dry, ancient buzzard of a waitress orders for our Texas rangers (Bridges, Alberto Parker) you’re left feeling the full heft of the moment. Or again, when some punk kid pulls up in a hotrod next to our brothers’ stolen beater getaway vehicle and brandishes a gun only to have Pine swoop in from off-screen and dispatch brutal violence, the moment works, delivers, and impacts. It’s effective filmmaking. Promise little, deliver more.
The story unfolds in bits and pieces allowing you to learn motivations by degrees rather than feeding it you upfront. Yes please, can I have some more of this Hollywood? And suitably, I won’t spoil it for you. Story 1, that of the good-bad bank robbing brothers is strong. It works, as do smaller moments of brotherly love and character development, maybe all the way up until one of them suddenly gets a little to eager to fall on a sword. But Story 2, while also filled with great buddy cop character building dialogue, doesn’t follow the same logic. Bridges’ Ranger Marcus Hamilton makes connections and assumptions too easily, not bothering with pesky, irksome things like ‘evidence’ or ‘fingerprints.’ He reaches into thin air and plucks out conclusions which are always right. Maybe it’s the characters desperation as his retirement is impending and he’s driven by momentary brilliance. I wish this had been stronger: provide me a cop who’s good for tangible reasons, not an archetype of some veteran who gets this right based of hunches as intangible and illusory as his adopted accent.
Sell the entire story, not just one half of it.
Despite this, you’ll feel compelled just as I did as the plot encourages us to make these leaps in logic along with the Rangers just to get to the ultimate confrontation, the one bit of action that seems assured. Story 1 must meet story 2, in the end. And they do, and they do it to satisfaction and more with enough wit to make it plausible. The story only sells itself short when it falls victim to one more trope, that of the heroes and the villains coming face to face to bait each other back and forth to end the film. All cards are laid on the table, with each side unable or unwilling to work. It feels like an ending added to provide an ending where perhaps no ending was needed. Still in comparison to so many other endings provided this summer, I’ll take it. When I was tempted to walk out of two separate films over the past month, any film that keeps me in my seat until the not so bitter end has already accomplished much, here, I left having enjoyed myself the whole way.