Hell or High Water

Year: 2016
Production Co: Film 44 Productions
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham

Did everyone else see a different movie than I did or did I mistakenly happen upon the pre-edited version? The almost universal praise of this movie has left me speechless – are they really talking about the same lazy, badly paced, seen-it-all-before plot I am with its badly caricatured characters and out of date zeitgeist? Maybe the entire problem is that everyone talking about the movie is referring to it as a modern Western, a genre that's always left me cold.

When Chris Pine recently talked about wanting to get away from roles that trade on wit and charm (James Kirk etc), I was watching this film shaking my head feeling sorry for him. After his recent coast guard action drama The Finest Hours flopped I was sure this would be another missed opportunity to reconstruct his career the way he seemed to want. But to read such glowing reviews, it seems Pine is having the last laugh.

Although most of the praise is directed at Jeff Bridges as gruff US Marshall Marcus Hamilton, and he was as much as disappointment as the rest of it. Bridges is by all accounts an intelligent and urbane man, and I'll never figure out what appeals about these Grizzly McGrizzleton roles like this and A Crazy Heart where he plays a guy who seems like he's permanently sozzled, talking like his cheeks are stuffed with cotton wool like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

Not that his character's seemingly bored and half-drunk state detracts from his commitment or dogged smarts to catch his quarry. Two brothers, Toby (Pine) and his more crazy and violent brother Tanner (Ben Foster, who I think has it written into each contracts that his character has to die violently) are robbing banks across smalltown Texas in order to keep the family ranch that's been left to them.

They seem to have a solid m.o. of hitting banks in the morning when they're not busy and then burying their getaway cars after each hit, but neither are professionals and their occasionally comic hijinks renders their days as criminals seriously numbered.

With Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the partner with whom he shares a relationship of good-natured racial ribbing, Marcus takes the case and they both talk, grizzle and drive their way across the county trying to guess the brothers' next move.

In the wide-open spaces in both the story and the locations, I spent the whole time wondering how insulted real Texans were likely to be by the stereotypes of backwater country bumpkins and their quaint, southern fried ways. Like a lot of Stephen King's books always seem to be, it was set in the modern day but the themes and philosophies (of the characters as well as the story) all seem trapped in some simpler time where folks said what they meant and nobody needed all these newfangled gadgets to do their jobs.

On top of all that, the billboards advertising pawn loans and credit services along the highways seem to be allusions to the GFC, a motif that's now either a couple of years out of date or (if it's just a comment on the slow death of the rural sector) we've seen a million times. I might have forgiven such a finicky detail, but disliking the rest of the movie primed me to find fault everywhere.

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