HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

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LAWLESS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gangster and family crime dramas are always a favorite film genre, especially when “based on a true story”, as this one claims. The story comes straight from the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of Jack Bondurant, portrayed in the film by Shia LaBeouf. The screenplay and direction come courtesy of the latest collaboration from Nick Cave (alt-Rocker) and John Hillcoat (The Road).

The cast is deep and talented. The three Bondurant brothers are played by Tom Hardy (Forrest), Jason Clarke (Howard) and LaBeouf (Jack). The brothers are moonshiners who also run their own bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition and the great depression. They are assisted by a moonshine savant named Cricket (Dane DeHaan as a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). A beautiful former Chicago dancer played by Jessica Chastain stumbles into their café while inexplicably searching for a quieter life. Mia Wasikowska is the preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak who gets courted by Jack. Gary Oldman is terrific, though sadly limited in screen time, as the notorious gangster Floyd Banner, and Guy Pearce plays Special Detective Charlie Rakes. Rakes is a corrupt, outlandishly colorful character out of Chicago who is on assignment to either get a cut of the business or kill everyone in the process … all while smelling like a “nancy” and keeping blood off his tailored suits. He does this with the worst movie haircut since Anton Chigurh. Pearce plays him like a mix of a Christoph Waltz villain and Willem Dafoe’s detective in The Boondock Saints. Quite a visual.

 With this cast and a very stylistic look provided by wonderful camera work, color scheme, and costumes, it’s a bit confounding that the movie isn’t a little better than it is. The war between outlaws and crooked lawmen, splashed with minor love stories and interesting characters seems to have a gap. Apparently there are too many vying for too little screen time. Gary Oldman’s character has a stunning and violent screen entrance, but then is wasted and ignored for the balance of the film. Chastain’s Maggie is carrying a back-story that is clearly very intriguing, but all we get is a few pouty looks.

 Since the novel’s author is the grandson of Jack, we can assume that’s why LaBeouf gets so much attention and screen time. He is the family runt, and can’t wait to prove his worth to his brothers. Even if this is true, this story line is nowhere near as interesting as that of Forrest, Floyd Banner, Detective Rakes, or Maggie. Whenever LaBeouf came on screen, I felt like I was watching an actor. When Hardy or Clarke were featured, it felt like real hillbillies were trying to protect their moonshine business. Speaking of Hardy, he dominates the screen again … just like in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises (as Bane). So anxious to watch his career continue to develop.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis combine on the excellent score, as well as some of the fine songs performed by The Bootleggers. The music adds even more to the film’s feel. With all of the characters here, this might have taken a step up as a mini-series. As it stands, it falls short of The Untouchables or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. While entertaining enough, it leaves us with an empty feeling and a hokey shootout finale.

** RECOMMENDATION: for an excellent movie about a family criminal group, see Animal Kingdom (from Australia)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the gangster/outlaw/bootlegger genre and relish the violence and street justice OR you want to see another powerful screen performance from rising star Tom Hardy, grunts and all.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the obnoxious, near-constant screen presence of Shia LaBeouf is enough to ruin whatever potential a hillbilly bootlegger movie might offer

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