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.

Leave a Reply

Quote Unquotesee all »

“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up