Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 12, 2016 7:31 am 
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Righteous criminals

There's an old contradiction at the heart of Mackenzie's Hell or High Water. Can you do wrong in a good cause? The movie is a powerhouse, with faultless central performances, assured direction, nicely varied pacing (it's an actioner that takes time to breathe), and a jaw-dropping script by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the great Sicario, packed with ideas and volumes of choice dialogue. It's a terrific movie but a little unwieldy. The friend I saw it with found it a over-long. It also risks seeming over-familiar. It really is original, maybe profoundly so, but it goes over old tropes of bank robbery movies, Westerns, and good-old-boy buddy pictures so closely that to many, it may feel tired. It's also occurred to me that it may be more violent and grand than it needs to be and that if scaled down it would have been more memorable. But that probably wouldn't be Mackenzie's or Sheridan's style, and as it is this is one of the best movies of the summer.

The good cause is the effort of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) to pay off the bank mortgage on their dead mama's house and land, the wrong to do it by stealing the money from the cash drawers of branches of the very same bank, Texas Midland. Kyle Smith of the NY Post calls the story "a desperado drama wrapped around a Bernie Sanders campaign speech." The right-leanings of his paper cause him to spot the leftist ones of the screenplay, but the current rumblings of "Occupy" discontent with exploitation of the poor by "the one percent" are only freshening up ideas as old as the legend of Robin Hood. Smith points out the movie has a running theme: "that to loan money to someone is to prey on them" which "is repeated often by the outlaws, plus every cowpoke and waitress in the movie." Yes but in simply assuming this is dangerously misguided lefty democrat propaganda, he's overlooking that in the pinched parts of Texas the movie focuses on, there's still a legacy of predatory loans. Of course robbing banks in the name of righting wrong is nothing new either.

Brothers Tanner Howard (Foster) and Troy (Pine) have an ingenious scheme, actually the younger, smarter Troy's. He is a divorcee with two young sons whose future he wants to ensure with the oil just discovered on his mama's land, and his record is lily-white. Older brother Tanner, who's done a decade of his 39 years in jail, provides the muscle and craziness and marksmanship of the righteous crime team. This splits things off handily for writer Sheridan: the bad guy goes down, the good guy survives, both have carried out their robberies and money laundering only in the single good family cause.

This is a double buddy picture, with two squabbling macho pairs. Troy and Tanner are balanced off by Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his part Indian, part Mexican descent partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus parallels Tommy Lee Jones's Ed Tom Bell in the Coens' crackling good Cormac McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men. He is the gnarly old boy on the edge of retirement who wants one last good score against the bad guys. The movie's excellent twist is that Troy's scheme is a might too clever and his cause a might too just for old Marcus to feel joy in putting him away. This can't compete with No Country, but really, it's not meant to; it's another thing entirely.

The movie, full of danger in the early, quick, small robberies of little banks in early morning, has Marcus with his affectionately abused sidekick lying in wait, ready to pounce, then a shootout and a chase. The screenplay is too ingenious and capacious to grasp on a single viewing and I'm still digesting it. It ends in a fizzle. That too is ingenious, and it is nice to end focused on Troy, the prey Marcus can't land but doesn't altogether want to. Chris Pine, the pretty boy from the new Star Trek rises to a new level here, revealing he can portray a character of real complexity, and his soiled, sweaty face in the Texas sun takes on the look of dark, polished wood. The film ends with satisfying revelation that the man can act, and reassurance that Bridges is still the master of his craft.

English director David Mackenzie is known for his ferociously intense 2013 vernacular prison drama Starred Up which showcased the talents of young actor Jack O'Connell. Before that he made the bleak Young Adam, (2003) starring Ewan McGregor.

Hell or High Water, 102 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016. US theatrical release 12 August 2016 . Metacritic rating 88%.

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