Wednesday, August 17, 2016

David Mackenzie's in-depth look at the fraught way we live now, HELL OR HIGH WATER

The only ordinary thing about HELL OR HIGH WATER, the marvelous new film from David Mackenzie, is its somewhat tired and certainly overused title. Otherwise, this compact, subtle, surprising little marvel of a movie gets under your skin and has you thinking about, understanding, and feeling for our fractured country and its poor (and not only financially) populace in ways that very few films have managed -- including even last year's terrific-and-should-have-won-the-Oscar movie, The Big Short.

How ironic that a British director should be able to nail today's America so sadly and beautifully. Mr. Mackenzie, shown at left, has a number of good films to his credit -- from his early and somewhat problematic Young Adam through the under-seen/under-rated Hallam Foe to one of the most profound and moving sci-fi dramas ever, Perfect Sense. This new one hits his high mark so far: a tale of bank robberies (that work both ways: Banks continue to rob us, so we them), brotherhood that is shown us in bonds of both family and friendship, and a search for justice that proves as difficult, sad and quietly unsettling as any you'll have so far witnessed, movie-wise.

Mackenzie and his casting directors (Jo Edna Bolden and Richard Hicks) have rounded up a truly wonderful cast -- both well-known leads and simply fabulous supporting players that lend the film the necessary gravity as well as a lot of tart truthfulness and humor. As the bank-robbing brothers, Chris Pine (above, right) and Ben Foster (left), whom I would never have imagined as siblings, work beautifully together  -- bouncing off each other with the kind of rivalry, annoyance, and deep love built up through decades (along with a certain brotherly lack of respect).

As their eventual adversary, we have an actor who just seems to deepen and improve with age to the point that he effortlessly owns any role (often any movie, too) in which he appears. That would be Jeff Bridges (above) as the Texas Ranger who, along with his partner (played wonderfully well by Gil Birmingham, below, right) dogs the bank robbers cleverly if sedentarily from very nearly the point of their initial foray into heists.

This is, as befits its tale, a "male" movie, but it does offer some choice supporting roles for women, in which every last one of them shines. The various bank tellers, in particular, are given wonderfully real moments, and one particular waitress -- a lovely job from Katy Mixon -- registers quite strongly. Another waitress (Margaret Bowman, below, center), in what is the film's funniest scene, registers even more strongly, and the always-fine Marin Ireland does a terrific job in making us understand why her character is Mr. Pine's "ex."

Working from a rich but lean screenplay by Tyler Sheridan (this one is much better than his earlier, more overwrought but less believable screenplay for Sicario), Mr. Mackenzie keeps everything on a low simmer throughout. Even when he gets to what would be, for lesser filmmakers, the chance to pull out the stops, he holds back -- which makes his audience appreciate all the more the opportunity to think about the consequences -- intended and not -- that one's actions incur.

This is the beauty of the film: how it forces us to confront the needs of all its characters and how it muddies up "right" and "wrong" until we, just as some of the characters here (those who are still alive, at least), are left pondering not-so-easy answers, along with as what that next and all-important step ought to be.

Most filmmakers would never allow the chance for additional action and bloodshed to go wanting. But this is what separates, movie-wise, the men from the boys. Hell or High Water is one of those rare "adult" motion pictures that asks for every bit of our attention and willingness to empathize and contemplate -- and then offers the kind of reward we seldom experience. (The musical score, too, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is appropriate -- and then some.)

From CBS Films and running a just-about perfectly-timed 102 minutes, the movie, I hope, will be one of those up for multiple awards come Oscar time (unless it is just too subtle for Academy members to appreciate). A better film in every way than the over-the-top and crammed-with-violence No Country for Old Men, after opening in New York and Los Angeles this past week, it hits cities nationwide this Friday, August 19. Here in South Florida it will Click here to find the theater(s) nearest you.

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