Friday, August 19, 2016

Hell or High Water: Superlative crime saga

Hell or High Water (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and fleeting sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.16

Most films are lucky if they successfully deliver compelling drama or perceptive social commentary. Very few do both at the same time.

This is one of the rare ones.

After a bank robbery doesn't go quite according to plan, Toby (Chris Pine, left) and his
brother Tanner (Ben Foster) contemplate their next move. The options are limited, and
time is running out...
Hell or High Water is the finest contemporary drama thus far in a year that has produced few American films of substance. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) deliver a taut crime thriller that’s also a shattering indictment of contemporary economic malaise, and the lingering havoc wrought by the 2007-8 subprime mortgage crisis.

The film is beautifully mounted and superbly acted by all four leads. Sheridan is equally adept at absorbing narrative and engaging character dynamics, along with having a great ear for the gently snarky banter that often bonds men who seem distant and crusty on the surface, but in fact deeply respect each other.

The resulting atmosphere is fascinating for its complexity: We don’t often encounter films that manage to be quite funny at times, while simultaneously enveloping us in an uneasy atmosphere of impending disaster. Grim portent hovers over these characters, like an ink-black thunderstorm visible on the horizon, and approaching inexorably.

In many ways, this film looks, sounds and feels like the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men; it certainly paints a similarly bleak portrait of the depressed regions of modern-day Texas. But that 2007 thriller depended (to a degree) on grotesques, in order to advance its story; you’ll find no monsters here, along the lines of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh.

No, the protagonists in Hell or High Water are painfully familiar, and that’s what makes this saga so heartbreaking: We know these guys. They’re the ones who live in the dilapidated house down the street, with the unkempt yard and dead vehicle(s). They hang around too much because employment has been spotty, and they’re always scrambling to remain one bank payment ahead of foreclosure.

Sheridan sets his story in West Texas, where the distinction between honest men and reluctant outlaws has blurred beyond recognition. We meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), guns drawn and faces concealed by masks, as they rob a tiny branch of the Midland Bank, terrorizing the two lone employees in the process. The boys are careful, taking only loose, small-denomination bills and avoiding the bundled larger bills with the explosive dye packs.

They roar away in a battered sedan, Tanner exhilarated by the adrenaline rush, the quieter Toby chastened by what they’ve just done. Their getaway takes them past foreclosed homes, shuttered businesses and countless billboards advertising payday loans; cinematographer Giles Nuttgens gives these surroundings the stark, washed-out look of cheap paint peeled away by too many seasons of blazing hot sunlight.

Then, later that same morning, they do it again ... at another small-town branch of the Midland Bank.

Sheridan sketches in details via clipped conversations. Toby, divorced and inherently decent, has just buried their mother; he’s the sole remaining occupant on a hard-scrabble farm that has been in the family for generations. Mother’s passing was long, painful and medically expensive, funded by a reverse mortgage on the property, the bank — Midland — poised to foreclose.

Toby hasn’t been able to find steady work, and is months behind on child support payments to his wife and their two sons. In desperation, he has turned to his older brother, a short-tempered ex-con, in order to tap Tanner’s one genuine talent: violent crime. Toby is the smart one — the planner — but he’d never have the nerve to pull off such a daylight robbery on his own; Tanner supplies the necessary momentum.

Tanner regards it as hell-for-leather fun, Foster’s always spooky eyes aglow with frightening intensity. Tanner is an unchecked, impulsive monster; he makes the mere act of drawing breath terrifying. And yet he’s only there, at Toby’s side, because his little brother asked for help. Their bond is deep and loving, and this is the other, somehow tragic side of Tanner’s character.

When Foster drops his sunglasses, at one point, to fix his brother’s gaze while saying, simply, “I love you,” we don’t doubt it for a second. But it’s also an emotional gut punch, because it’s the last thing we expect to hear from this psychopath.

Pine, who seems to be everywhere these days, is equally persuasive as the desperate Toby: clearly ashamed by what circumstances have driven him to, but equally convinced that his cause is righteous. We see the struggle in Pine’s gaze: equal parts regret and stubborn determination. Toby is trying his best, and many of Pine’s scenes are almost embarrassingly intimate: the uncomfortable pauses that characterize his encounters with ex-wife Debbie (a nicely understated Marin Ireland); and his wary but devoted bond with Tanner.

In a palpable sense, Toby and Tanner see themselves making a final stand for a family that never has fulfilled the promise of safety that should be provided. Sheridan’s story is a saga of roots and legacy, where these two brothers are the last in a lineage of failed men and women, and who regard themselves as the only ones left to somehow stop the cycle of violence, poverty and shame.

Their actions certainly aren’t viewed with disdain by many of the witnesses later interviewed by police; banks — and particularly the oleaginous managers who interface with the public, while making insincere promises — haven’t been depicted with such contempt since the days of Bonnie and Clyde.

Which segues nicely to the other half of this story’s equation: aging Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his younger partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus, mere weeks from mandatory retirement, revels at this opportunity for one final, glorious arrest; Alberto recognizes that his companion may not survive on his own, without the challenge of the work that has been his entire life.

They’re a hoot together. Marcus is irascible and foul-mouthed, forever lobbing racist taunts — like globs of spit — at Alberto, who is half Mexican, half Native American. We initially wonder why Alberto doesn’t smack the grumpy ol’ coot in the snoot, but then we note the subtlety of Birmingham’s just-barely there grin, and the twinkle in his eyes. Marcus doesn’t put any heat behind his epithets; they’re simply his way of making small talk.

And besides: Alberto gives as good as he gets.

Bridges has been on a phenomenal roll lately, delivering one terrific performance after another: in Crazy Heart, the remake of True Grit and now here. Marcus is quite a study: superficially annoying as hell, but undeniably shrewd. He misses nothing. And it’s telling, when Marcus develops a somewhat far-fetched theory about this string of bank robberies, that Alberto doesn’t argue the point; he knows, from experience, to accept the older man’s wisdom.

Marcus and Alberto aren’t brothers in the biological sense, but their bond is just as deep, their mutual respect quite palpable.

Mackenzie surrounds his four stars with a roster of scene-stealing bit players. Dale Dickey is a hoot as the feisty teller in the first bank robbed by the boys, suggesting that “if they’re smart,” they’ll quit before things get out of hand. Margaret Bowman is flat-out hilarious as the cranky, wizened waitress in a T-Bone diner, who — taking an order from Marcus and Alberto — demands to know what they don’t want with their steaks.

Katy Mixon, finally, develops a full-blown presence in a few short scenes as Jenny Ann, a waitress in a different diner: initially sympathetic, as she senses Toby’s inner turmoil; and later quite high-spirited, as she refuses to cooperate with Marcus’ investigation. It’s one of the best brief performances I’ve ever seen.

The often melancholy on-screen action is given additional emotional heft by a soundtrack laced with doleful blues and country/western tunes: Townes Van Zandt’s “Dollar Bill Blues,” Colter Walls’ “Sleeping on the Blacktop,” Chris Stapleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind” and many others. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis augment the mood with occasional — but always effective — bits of mournful orchestral underscore.

All the elements are top-notch, and everything works; Mackenzie assembles and orchestrates his film with the precision of a master conductor. The atmospheric transitions are graceful and logical, our emotions carried in a multitude of directions, always persuasively. Mackenzie and Sheridan even work in some sly political commentary, suggesting how ludicrously dangerous it is, residing in an open-carry state where anybody could be a trigger-happy lunatic.

Hell or High Water is an impeccably crafted, thoroughly absorbing drama. It’s also a heartfelt and deeply important statement of our times: something we’ll look back on, in decades to come, as a reminder of the price of institutional despair.

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