By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: Hell Or High Water

“Three tours of Iraq and no bail-out for people like us,” reads a spray-painted wall in the opening shot of Hell or High Water (formerly Comancheria), a crime drama from David Mackenzie (2013’s Starred Up). With gripping tension and real-world stakes from the get-go, the graffiti message resonates as a reminder of the bitter resentment people have against financial institutions, and that they’re willing to fight back.

First introduced in morning Texas heat wearing ski masks, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers on a relatable mission: quietly tough Toby (Pine) needs to save his ranch from foreclosure, and he’s enlisted ex-con Tanner (Foster) to join him on several minor bank robberies. They’re only interested in robbing $5s, $10s, and $20s, which is another way of saying these are small jobs that only add up to a fraction of the loot we see in most heist films. But by restraining the amount of money to a sum earned on a single episode of “Jeopardy!,” Black List screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ensures we care, as it’s not about that “one last score.” “Poverty is a sickness,” Toby says at one point, and yet it’s expressed by nearly everyone in the film, from the just-getting-by to the generational cowboy.Mackenzie

The script is far better than your average smash-and-grab. It’s a vault of zingers and thoughtful conversations demanded of the genre to stand out, but are rarely delivered as well as they are here. Despite a conventional dynamic, Pine’s calm-and-collected Toby works effectively across Foster’s hotheaded Tanner—but Foster’s performance is unpredictable enough to revel in chaos, which occurs in improvised bank robberies and high speed getaways (set to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ somber score; yes, the deck is stacked in this heist pic).

As sheriff and deputy, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham share a hilarious, at times awkward partnership as they doggedly chase their outlaws, slinging slurs and insults over firearms. And just as we’re left worrying there are no interesting women in this overtly masculine two-on-two, a “rattlesnake” waitress takes the pair to task for not ordering their steak correctly.

The concept of having “fun” is a complex cornerstone to these men, and it’s central to the story. Hell or High Water is “fun” in the way that it will garner serious market interest in its consistently entertaining pacing and excellent shoot-out finale, but a little bit deeper and we see these well-developed characters enjoying the narrative more than the audience, which adds to the overall value of this genre entry. “I love West Texas,” Bridges grins as he strolls through town, cracking jokes at crime scenes. But it’s not just West Texas he admires: he’s happy to be working—he’s months from retirement—and his thrills come from the hunt in the same way Tanner’s come from being out of prison and breaking bad again. And as the film becomes more fatal, a rifle-crack results in near-orgasm for the sniper who fired it.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas