Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hell or High Water (2016)

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard set out to rob the various branches of an exclusively Texan – and pretty small-time - bank in fine low key attempts where nobody will get hurt and they’ll just take in a bit of money from each bank instead of getting greedy and taking risks. Toby’s the straight one of the two, while Tanner has spent ten years in prison after shooting their abusive father in a “hunting accident”. Tanner hasn’t really gotten onto anything looking like the straight and narrow ever since. However, robbing those banks is Toby’s idea and he’s asked Tanner for help executing it.

The brothers’ mother has recently died, leaving the family farm to Toby’s sons in trust. A trust that would be worth quite a bit of money because there’s a nice fat oil deposit on the farm. Not accidentally, the bank owning the family’s mortgage has decided to foreclose on the farm, and now Toby needs money rather quickly to secure the thing nobody in his family ever knew before for his sons: the absence of poverty. The man has a healthy sense of irony too, for just guess which banks he’s hitting with his brother?

Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on their trail, Marcus using the case to prolong the time before his retirement as much as possible and to grumpily prove he’s still the cleverest bastard around.

Apparently, if you want to produce a really fantastic film set in Texas, hire a Scotsman to direct it. Well, at least if it is Hell or High Water’s director David Mackenzie, and your dream film is a combination of contemporary actor’s cinema, wry humour, and the portrayal of a quiet tragedy. While he’s at it, Mackenzie also adds a lot of consciously underplayed subtext about the plight of the white working (or very often non-working) class in rural areas to the mix.

In a sense, this is a film very much about people the USA as a whole have left to fend for themselves (to then wonder why they’d vote for Trump’s particular brand of lies, empty promises and blaming the Other), without safety nets (because those are apparently un-American). For most of the characters in the film, soul-crushing poverty is a near guarantee, a state lying before not only them but their children, and their children’s children and so on. It’s not quite as horrible a state as that of poor and lower middle-class blacks, obviously, for at least these people don’t need to be afraid to be shot for their skin colour, but eternal poverty does not look that much more attractive to the people suffering it when an early violent death is out of the picture. In any case, it’s not a state of affairs that’s bound to make one terribly law-abiding, specifically not when there’s a chance to give at least some of one’s loved ones an escape.

While all this is a permanent subtext – and sometimes text – of the film, Mackenzie doesn’t make an American kitchen sink drama out of the material. Instead, this is an often wry and humorous film that is interested in its characters as people and not just as didactic examples. Mackenzie gives the fantastic cast room to breathe, or in Bridges’s case to do his by now probably patented but often surprisingly subtle grumpy old man bit. It’s just that these good, bad, eccentric, tragic, pitiful and infuriating people all have the shadow of economics and of class hanging over them, catching them in a net that turns all their best intentions against them, and turning a film that might have been played exclusively as a funny Robin Hood sort of tale into a tragedy even in those moments when it is funny. Or really, into more than one tragedy. There’s an obvious one of lives wasted and lost but also one of personal ethics crushed under market forces one can’t control and barely comprehend.

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