Hell or High Water

It may be a little early for Awards forecasting, but my dopler has been keen a couple of times in the last five or six years so I might as well take a shot with this film. I see at least two strong acting contenders and a screenplay nomination that will depend on what opens between now and the end of the year. This is easily the most Award worthy film I’ve seen this year so far and I am giving it my highest recommendation. If is manages to get to a theater in your neck of the woods, you should go and see it. It is not perfect in plotting but the dialogue is fantastic and the spine of the story is compelling and relevant.

 

We don’t exactly know why, but two brothers are on a mission to rob a series of bank branches that belong to a local institution in Texas. The robberies are planned and there is a definite element of thinking to the strategy, but in execution, the robbers appear to be less than sharp.  The Texas Rangers become involved and a wily soon to be retired investigator has his own theories about how to flush the criminals out. That’s as much of the plot as I’m willing to give up because there are some surprises along the way that you will not want to have spoiled for you. The context of hard times and the stubborn independent streak of West Texas make the film feel fresh in a dozen different places. There is much humor in the film but some of it will seem politically incorrect and might irritate SJW. There is a sense that things are not as they should be and that is partially due to race and class. In the end we are going to be conflicted because both sides in the conflict have given us something to root for.

 

There are three parallel relationships that keep our interest in the film, let’s take them one at a time. First the two brothers in the movie could not be more dissimilar.  Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, the younger, very handsome brother who has always been a straight arrow, if not always a success. His older brother Tanner is a wild child, disowned by his mother, convicted by the state of various crimes, and probably guilty of patricide. Ben Foster has been an actor in the periphery of stardom for more than a decade. His Charlie Prince in the remake of ” 3:10 to Yuma”  was a flashy part but not big enough to score with critics groups. This part should change that. Tanner is a truculent loser with a sense of self that is humorous at times and frightening in other moments. The two brothers bicker, reminisce, and joke with one another like brothers might. They have not always been close but they understand each other really well. Pine is excellent but his role is the less flashy of the two, and Tanner has some of the best one liners in the film. Both my daughter and I laughed hard at his umbrage when his brother tries to substitute Mr. Pibb for Dr. Pepper. He may not be the smart one, but he is the spark plug that makes this story compelling.

 

The second relationship that is important to our appreciation of the film is the partnership between the two Texas Rangers on the trail of the pair. Gil Birmingham is Alberto Parker, a Native American in the most cowboy job a guy can have. His partner is old timer Marcus Hamilton, a laid back Jeff Bridges. Marcus goes by instinct and cleverness. Alberto is the more traditional Ranger who sees tweekers  behind most of the crimes they investigate. It seems that these two are friends most of the time but the jabs they give one another are sometimes done without the sarcastic smile that would indicate that the speaker does not really mean what they are saying. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a ear for what is real and what is tense.Their conversations range all over the place but are deepest when looking at the changing roles of different groups in Texas. Both of them know when they have been put in their place by a local waitress with definite ideas of what it is they should be ordering to eat. The importance of this relationship is what sets up the last of the three major pairings in the film.

Toby and Marcus are the third side of this triangle of male relationships. Bridges is using his gruff mumbling voice in this film, a lot like he did in the dud “R.I.P.D.” from a few years ago. In that film the character was overdone but in this film the quirks are perfectly balanced with the thoughtfulness of the character. The gravel in the voice is less affectation and more earned. The climax of the film will surprise some people but not fans of 1970s films. The unfulfilled confrontation between the two smart guys in the film is some of the best character dialogue you will hear in movies these days. Bridges and Foster are exterior performances which is why they will get deserving notice but that should not overshadow Pine who becomes a better actor each time he is in a film. His work in this final scene will prove that to anyone willing to watch.

There were times in the film when I was reminded of watching one of those car chase films from the seventies. Not the cartoon ones in “Smokey and the Bandit” but the existential films like “Vanishing Point” or even “Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary”.  The characters success or failure in the chase was not just a visceral thrill but a moment of significance to the story. The cat and mouse game being played in this film is for big stakes, and we can empathize with each side since they both take significant losses. Also like a 70s film, the scenes develop and build they don’t simply start with a climax and show that. There is purpose behind all of the things that happen in the film. Having made the choice they did, the two brothers story plays out as it must, a tragedy and a double edged success. Bridges stands as the looming figure in the lives of the two brothers, and his quiet, ominous demeanor, is one of the great pleasures of this film.

They don’t make Westerns much anymore and the old saying is they “don’t make them like they used to”. Well “Hell or High Water” is both a Western and made like they used to make them. It is thoughtful, violent, clever and performed at a level that will please audiences substantially. I could hear today’s crowd react several times to moments in the film. They do so because they become invested in the characters. That sort of character driven story is hard to come by in the fast paced action films of the day. This movie will provide the opportunity to follow a story, care about all of the main players, and sit in suspense as we wait for the final moments. You will be hearing about this one again. Make sure you are ready to talk about it by seeing it.

The Finest Hours

There may be films that deserve their box office fate. I have yet to see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” so I can’t say it does not earn it’s economic failure. I can say I’ve seen a number of films over the years that should have been more successful and popular than they turned out to be. Unfortunately, this film looks like it will fall into that second category; an excellent film that will not connect with the audience for some reason. It is difficult for me to fathom why that is the case, since it features a young popular actor in the lead, terrific special effects, and a dramatic story that is worth telling. Maybe the January release date or the sobering real life drama are scaring people awy. Or maybe we have finally gotten to the point where adult films don’t draw anyone in if they don’t feature blood, sex, violence and language that would put an old time sailor to shame.

The Coast Guard is a misunderstood and sometimes overlooked part of our military, but their action contribute on a daily basis to our security and even more important to safety on the seas. This is a true story about the efforts of a small Coast Guard crew, in an undersized boat, fighting the elements to save a large group of men in a maritime disaster. I have always appreciated when movies show competent people doing their jobs and managing to make the world better. The engineers at NASA are a good example but so are the teachers in our schools and the hospital staffs that try to help us. They are not always perfect, but when everyone does their best, then the results are rewarding, That’s really what this film is about. Not just the Coast Guard crew but the men who survived the break up of their ship in hurricane like conditions, but managed to give themselves enough time to allow help to arrive.

As old fashioned as a salute to the flag or a boy scout troop, “The Finest Hours” is very straightforward in it’s story telling. There is a small back story about the man who led the rescue and his future bride, and hints of a failed previous rescue,but other than that the movie sticks to a straight narrative of the events, following the Coast Guard process and in a parallel narrative, the efforts of the crew of the Pendelton, the sinking ship, to save themselves. There is not an ironic view of the events, or any social commentary offered, it is simply a rescue story, well told both visually and in the narrative. Certainly some events may have been enhanced for the film but nothing untoward happens from a cinematic perspective. Maybe modern audience won’t get chocked up by the way the sailors volunteered for what is essentially a suicide mission, but I know I did. These men signed up for the purpose of making a difference and they did not shirk their responsibility, even when it was a threat to their survival.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webster, (at one time described as a bosom’s mate. I don’t know the ranks well enough to say, but he captains the rescue boat. Pine in the early scenes is portrayed as an uncertain innocent. He even has to have his girlfriend ask him to marry him. He does not seem like the decision making leader, but rather a stalwart man, capable of doing a job, but reluctant to assert himself. The post war setting in Massachusetts looked very authentic to me. The women wore dresses and the men wore collared shirts and they dance and drive like real people, not like the cartoon caricatures of people we see in movies today. Casey Afflect plays the chief engineer of the broken tanker and he is equally quiet but needs to step up if the men on his ship are to survive. There was not a lot of melodrama in the ship side story, just the usual stress that a life threatening experience is likely to produce. The land based drama is a bit thicker but it never overwhelms the basic story.

There are heroic moments and close calls and a number of lucky breaks depicted in the film. At one point it looked like Eric Bana’s  Commander Cluff was going to be a bad guy in the story, instead he turns out to simply be the level headed military structure that the system depends on. He has to make tough choices and they are not always correct, but there was never any level of malevolence in those orders. Holliday Granger is the pretty girl that Pine leaves at home but serves as our surrogate for worry during the adventure. Everyone looks great in the period costumes and they all carry off those northeaster accents admirably. Ben Foster is a sturdy number two on the rescue boat, and he has become a very solid character actor, especially in these military based stories. Everyone was excellent, and I noticed that Carter Burwell did the music for this. He was able to better serve this film than the other weekend film I saw on which he also worked, yesterday’s disappointing “Hail, Caesar!”  I would strongly recommend this film to all of you who don’t mind an old fashioned drama, brought together by competent pros.