Oscars 2017: Hell or High Water


The Film: Hell or High Water

The Pitch: How the West Was Lost

Number of Nominations: 4

Which Categories? Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor

Will it Win? No. Frankly, it’s a bit of a shock that it’s up for Best Picture, and it’s a great film, but it doesn’t stand a chance. Jeff Bridges is great as a wily old Texas Ranger, but it feels like a performance he’s given before several times, and besides, he already has an Oscar. In the Supporting Actor category, the other four nominees (Michael Shannon, Lucas Hedges, Dev Patel, and Mahershala Ali) are all drawing attention. Taylor Sheridan‘s screenplay is tight and engaging and the film is never boring, but it’s up against La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. 

Synopsis: Toby and his ex-con brother Tanner rob branches of a West Texas bank to obtain enough money to prevent the foreclosure of their family ranch. Crafty Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton is soon on the case, his last before he retires, and as Marcus zeroes in on them, the brothers attempt one last score.

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Hell or High Water is a western in everything but name. It has all the ingredients of a classic horse opera: outlaw heroes (they’re also brothers, just like the James boys); a grizzled old-timer chasing them down; bank robberies; shootouts; a posse; saloon gambling; robber barons trying to get their hands on some land; even “an Injun”. Put the cast in different clothes and replace the cars and trucks with horses and this could easily be a film of the sort that people say they don’t make anymore. 

I’ve only seen Chris Pine in a few things, and he’s always impressed as a decent enough actor. In the Star Trek films his charm and charisma are evident, but they’re not the sort of movie that allows for great acting. Hell or High Water, on the other hand, lets him actually act, and he’s terrific: low-key, troubled, laconic, filled with regret. He needs to do more stuff like this.

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Then again, it must have been easy for Pine to find his way into the role of Toby, the bankrupt rancher fighting to keep the family farm, because he’s working off the great Ben Foster as his wild brother Tanner, clearly having a ton of fun. Where Toby is cautious, Tanner is anything but: he’s loud, crass, and reckless. It’s a cliched movie pair-up, the brothers so different that sparks inevitably fly, but it’s a testament to the script and to both actors that Toby and Tanner never feel like stock-characters. There’s a lovely quiet moment when the two brothers play-fight: it feels like something made up on the spot by the actors, and it lends an authenticity to the relationship. 

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The movie’s other partnership is between Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the lawmen, and it’s a treat watching these two trade insults and talk bullshit.

It’s easy to see why Bridges is getting lots of attention for his rascally old dog performance, but Birminghman deserves a lot of credit for bringing a quiet, sober quality to his role, and a lot of Bridges’ lines only land because they’re directed at him.

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There is a fifth character, and it’s West Texas itself: all depressing small towns, poverty, country music, and cowhands. I’m guessing Sheridan’s script is being lauded as much for the commentary on a rural way of life that’s long gone as for the film’s barbed dialogue. This being Texas, pretty much everyone carries a gun, and nobody has any sympathy for the banks that get robbed. At times, the film is a little too on the nose about people struggling  to pay the bills while the banks rob them blind.

There is also a certain inevitability about the events, and no spoilers, but you won’t be that surprised at how it all turns out. Still, though, Hell or High Water is that rarest of things: an intelligent crime movie more interested in character than action. It’s a solid thriller that is never uninteresting and is tinged with sadness, and I think that unlike some other films from 2016, it will stand the test of time very well. 

Verdict: Four T-Bone Steaks and Baked Potatoes out of Five

 

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