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Film Review

Hell or High Water

It's fair to say that Westerns are the quintessential American film.   Modern classics (post 1980) tend to depict ambiguity, contradiction, irony, moral compromise and often, antiheroes.  Their tone tends to the melancholy.  Brutality and cruelty prevail, and their stories are generally more complex and gritty.   Sometimes the bad guy wins.  Earlier giants include The SearchersHigh Noon, and Once Upon a Time in the West, to mention a few.   On my list of the best of the newer classics, Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven (1992) stands ahead of the rest: Dances with Wolves (1990), Lone Star (1996), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit (2010), Meek's Cutoff (2010), and The Homesman (2014).  

David Mackenzie, a Scottish director, has been making films for about 15 years, a few in the US, but never before a Western.   So it is somewhat surprising, and impressive, to see his latest: Hell or High Water, with the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario).  Two brothers in West Texas try to save their mother's house from foreclosure.   The older, Tanner, just released from prison for bank robbery, convinces his younger brother, Toby, to begin robbing banks in small towns.   His theory is that if you are in and out quickly, never take large bills, and don't hurt anyone, you raise the odds of getting away.   Good theory but Tanner is a sociopath who loves guns and violence, so some robberies inevitably turn ugly.  Toby, a divorced but devoted father, is determined that his son will not grow up poor as he did.

Shot in a palette of browns and golds, the flat hardscrabble setting of West Texas - harsh, dry, treeless, with only sage brush, grass, sand and rock - is itself a character in this film.   Everywhere we see oil jacks pumping, but the towns have all withered and died, with For Sale and Vacant signs everywhere.  Grain elevators and strip malls stand empty.  Even the cattle business is fading.  You can drive for miles without seeing a soul.  Like so many regions of America between the coasts, this is where people are from, not where they are going.   Shot mostly on location in New Mexico, Hell or High Water would definitely be a contender if Oscars were awarded for "Most Memorable Setting." 

So Tanner and Toby first hit a small bank, arriving just before it opens.  They knock the female teller to the floor.   Cool despite the threat and a keen observer, she quips: "Y'all new at this, I'm guessing".   They grab the money and roar off in their muscle car, heading back to their small ranch.   According to plan, they drive the car into a previously dug hole and bury it.   Then they set out in another car, exhilarated by their first success.  

A bank or two later, Marcus, a Texas Ranger about to retire, and his Indian-Hispanic sidekick, realize that these guys are no "tweakers" but savvy robbers.  Marcus may be white-haired, but he is savvy too, has seen it all, and thinks that the robbers will continue their pattern of hitting banks in tiny towns.  He decides to stake out a likely bank.  The two Rangers banter and kid each other, often in starkly racial terms, but the affection and respect between them is obvious.

So many good scenes here seem destined to become classics.  In one of my favorites, the two Rangers order breakfast in a small forlorn diner known for its steaks.   A crusty old waitress, more than a match for the two, explains what they can't get with their steak.   Forget the bacon and eggs, this is a steak place.   In another great scene, this time with the robbers, in yet another diner, a sassy younger waitress, considerably more interested in Tanner than his brother, ends up with a $200 tip, which she refuses to relinquish to the lawmen wanting evidence.   She is intent on paying her mortgage, a constant theme in this film.   Like her, most of the people we see are just barely getting by, and they hate the banks, which are eager to foreclose after any late payment.  (Some things never change!)   A few scenes comment - some positively, some not so - on that Texas thing for carrying concealed weapons.

Hell or High Water is a very accomplished film.  The acting is memorable, even the minor characters.   Jeff Bridges is wonderful as the old Ranger, with Chris Pine and Ben Foster outstanding as the two brothers.   The cinematography is tremendous, with the bleached, sun blasted colors of the Southwest.  There are definitely Oscar nominations here.   The score, both country and some large scaled, emotional pieces, fits perfectly.   I loved this film for its strong narrative, real sense of place, great acting and its distinct, mostly unspoken, social commentary.  It is memorable.   Hell or High Water belongs with the best modern Westerns.   Try to see it in the theater.  Playing widely throughout the Bay Area including the Kabuki.  Running time: 102 minutes.    Ciao and have a great Labor Day weekend.

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