Friday, May 05, 2017

Hell or High Water: It Could Have Been a Great Film

Movie Review: Hell or High Water (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I'm of two minds on the 2016 film Hell or High Water. First, this isn't just your usual Texas shoot-em-up bank robbery movie. Second, it seemed to be a passing of the baton from one Hollywood generation to the next. I'll explore both themes before rendering a verdict on whether I liked the movie.

Most bank robbery movies pit bad guys against good guys, the good guys winning, and the good guys are usually the cops and the banks they protect. In Hell or High Water, you have a hard time figuring out which are who. Well, clearly the banks are the bad guys, but in terms of the characters, there are no clear bad guys and there are no clear losers besides the banks. No one gets shot until near the end of the film, and even then it isn't done with malice until the very end. Even with characters depicted as good guys, there is no clarity. People who rob banks aren't usually shown as good guys, but as the story progresses you come to understand the robbers have noble reasons for doing it. And the Texas Ranger pursuing them - well, he's just a stereotyped Texas lawman out to get his man, which is sad because you really don't get to know the man outside of the stereotype.

The gist of the story is two brothers seeking revenge on a small banking group set to foreclose on their late mother's ranch after they set her up on two predatory loans. The brothers get back at the bank by robbing different locations, laundering the money through a casino, and then paying back the loans and setting up a trust in the name of the sons of one of the brothers, the trust handled by the bank to keep it in the bank's interest to protect the trust. A Texas Ranger and his partner take a keen interest in the case when federal law enforcement won't touch it and pursue the brothers with deep devotion. You feel for the brothers, who never really pocket any of the money for their own benefit.

So, as I say, other than the stereotyped Texas Rangers characters, this isn't your usual Texas shoot-em-up bank robbery movie. It's kind of fun seeing a predatory bank take the hit.

Playing the major characters are Chris Pine as Toby Howard and Ben Foster as his brother Tanner, along with Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Chris Pine continues to show great range in the characters he plays, from Captain Kirk of the star ship Enterprise in Star Trek to this role as a down-but-not-out-by-any-means son of a mother-taken-advantage-of by a bank and father of a son to whom he wants to pass on some kind of legacy. He plays all characters deftly and with heart. At the other end of the range is Jeff Bridges, who to me always comes off as the same character, with the same drawl, the same look, the same woodenness. To see him in one role is to see him in any other. It seems to me he had more range in years past. Perhaps that's just what happens to actors as they age, although that's not the case with J.K. Simmons, who seems to just get better with each role.

Watching Pine and Bridges together in this film seemed like a passing of a baton from one generation to the next. It was almost painful to compare their performances - one original, vibrant, compelling, the other tired and spent.

And so I get to the crux of my verdict. This could have been a great film. It was up for four Oscar nominations, including Best Performance for an Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges), but it won none. It had an excellent plot, going after predatory banks. The fact that it turned the bank robbery theme on its head was brilliant. The Howard brothers were eminently relatable and likable. There were enough action and plot twists and the grand vista of Western Texas to please anyone. But there was the impediment of that stereotyped Texas Ranger who stood up larger than life and shot it all to hell.

I won't say, don't see Hell or High Water. That's not the point. It's a good western. Just be prepared to be disappointed. Maybe I'll have just helped you figure out why you were disappointed after you've seen it. Maybe see it for Pine's and Foster's performances. They'll give you a good ride into the sunset.

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