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Film Review: Hell Or High Water

By: Jay Armstrong

In a year where staple franchises and big budget carbon-copy slop struggle beneath the weight of irrelevance (calling all Ghostbusters evangelists) all glory has gone to films bravely using ones own voice to create out of substance an experience with soul. For those who value integrity it has been nothing but gold month after month in this foul year of our lord two thousand and sixteen. We still have three months left and narrowing down a “best of” list short enough for conversation is damn near impossible, add one more to the argument with Hell or High Water.

 

Excitement from the western front has been long overdue, take how the trailer for the Magnificent 7 remake is continuously being shoved down our throats out of desperation through proxy to force hype; sure people will see itChris Pratt will prove once more he is likeable yet works poorly as a lead, we already have come to terms with how much better Ethan Hawke is when his work involves Linklater, not to mention how much of a grasp for cash putting him alongside Denzel Washington is for the studio, racists jabs will be poorly thrown around without tact or quality of writing all the while being shrouded as an attempt at remaining true to the original; our justified expectations of a meh movie with a meh cast will undoubtedly be fulfilled making City Slickers look like a masterpiece worthy of revisiting (what the hell happened to Billy Crystal anyway? Can we buy a cameo for Daniel Stern?). Westerns have become the male reciprocal of Jennifer Aniston movies, the route format of poorly constructed long overused plot lines meant to have importance simply by putting some expanse of still wild America in the background should have been beaten and buried long ago, yet time and again we slink around the Redbox machine with its scattered array of southern mediocrity, throwing sideways glances and metaphoric head scratches at their green-lit existence. At the very least those digital cinematic hemorrhoids remind us that Robert Duvall is still kicking and whatnot so something positive comes from it. I mean, do we really want Kevin Costner to run out of work? I’ll back off on my criticism to not destroy whatever job security they seem reliant upon. As with every generic Kings of Leon there will always be free spirited honest Rock N Roll bands screaming their derivative honesty from whatever dive bars remain left unscathed on a Texas Thursday night in the wake of overpopulation and the ever present threat of whitewashed gentrification, the same goes for onscreen as it does onstageSome will preorder their Magnificent 7 tickets with the calm duty of sheep while the rest of us find the nearest kindred spirit to babble and awe at the masterpiece of all that is Hell or High Water.

 

Leaving the theater this film begs for conversation, you look for the nearest stranger to ask with a sparkle in your eye if they have seen it, you will tell them they should if not, this is that kind of film, you want to talk about it. Director David Mackenzie shows up relatively out of nowhere with an impressive understanding of both the endearing dynamic of brotherly camaraderie and Cohen brother films. Hell or High Water is about as much a bank robbery movie as was The Place Beyond the Pines, centering on themes of being down on one’s luck, the complex yet simple duality of the bond between two brothers (what Dave Eggers referred to in A Heartbreaking Work… as “The Brotherly Love/Weird Symbolism Factor”), and the sacrifice of a working man’s bullheaded shoulder down fists clenched stand for his family against eternities ever threatening heavy hand. Eagle Pennell must be perking up in his grave knowing this one exists, and rightfully so, now more than ever we need a stirring up of the long settled dust within where the fight we still hold dimly lit lays dormant beside Bukowski’s bluebird.

 

Chris Pine continues his struggle to not be pigeonholed as another Chris Hemsworth and does a damn fine job this go round at proving his point. The back and forth of Jeff Bridges, who continues his glorious walkoff homerun that has been his career’s third act, with Gil Birmingham is as enjoyable as the barber shop banter of Clint Eastwood and John Carroll Lynch in Gran Torrino. Dale Dickey shows up in one of her atypical small roles to brilliantly steal her scene as per usual, even on her own standards she hasn’t owned the camera this well since Winters Bone. Though if we are talking actors, the most important conversations we should be having at this moment being, when are we going to start giving Ben Foster some genuine credit? Hasn’t the guy put in as much work over the last ten years as the Carradine’s collectively did in the 90’s? Feels that way at least. He consistently is in overlapping releases, this year showing up in four films (not to mention a short) and still we go “Ben who?” whenever his name comes up. His inevitable nod in the “best supporting actor” category speaks to his deserving better.

 

Any film with Van Zandt’s “Dollar Bill Blues” and Waylon’s “You Ask Me To” playing will obviously speak straight to my heart, those two songs alone keep my opinions positive over all about the soundtrack, though with everyone I have talked with making such a big hoorah about Nick Cave helping score the film; certainly he does a passable job where nothing on screen is left overtly worth complaining about, though the overall experience might as well be an onscreen adaption of a typical Cave album with two or three brilliant songs standing out amidst a white washed bleh of mediocre carbon copied style shading in the rest. To put it into perspective we can agree it far outshines that train wreck of Jonny Greenwoods on There Will Be Blood (if he was just gonna lay on the keyboard for two and a half hours the least he could have done was shown a little respect to everyone else putting in better work on the project by turning the volume down). So unless your heart skips a beat at the mention of Danny Elfman this one meets general expectations, though if you go in believing all of the cardboard words from cardboard people about perceived brilliance you will find yourself setback at its average tone that is unless you found Matt Barr’s role as Johnse on Hatfields & McCoys to be an authentic homage to roughneck culture in which case prepare to have your mind blown (anyone else still livid about whatever bullshit boots he had those Diesel jeans slipped over on episode two? I haven’t been that disgusted  since the weekend I thought it would be entertaining to read over live tweets from Coachella).

 

Although we see once again the theme of banks being the perpetual ominous “them” standing aggressively at odds with the consistently degraded “us,” the toughness and truth of the film rises out of the philosophical undertones of the separate Pine/Foster and Bridges/Birmingham dynamics which functions under the guise of humor. Hell or High Water is hilarious, its expression of the human spirit through old dogs still having their greatest fight left in them holds valid emotional depth; if we were to rank films along the curve of longevity of relevance and enjoyment, amidst all the greatness we have had the privileged to see over the year, this film sits firmly at number one as what will be revisited with thirst time and time again infinitum.