Hell or High Water

I was a little sorry to have missed this, since it got fairly good reviews and I like the sound of Jeff Bridges as a grizzled cowboy Texas ranger. But now we’re in that time of year when there’s nothing to see, and this is still lingering around now due to Jeff Bridges’ Oscar nomination. So let’s go!

We’re thrust right into two bank robberies by two roughneck guys who don’t seem very experienced. This is all happening in West Texas, and as the guys drive around we see wildfires burning and numerous signs saying “Debt Relief” and “Need Cash?” We soon meet Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger who is—you’ll never guess—a few days from retirement. He has a native American partner that he mercilessly taunts with racist comments, eventually saying “When I’m gone, you’ll miss my teasing,” which is what those people always tell themselves, right?

Details slowly trickle out. The two guys are brothers. One of them is reckless and impulsive and, you know, stupid, and the other is handsome and more stable, with mixed feelings about what they’re doing. Eventually it is revealed that they are robbing the banks to get money to pay the mortgage on their deceased mother’s property in order to secure it, and the oil it has recently been found to contain, to ensure the future of the stable brother’s children.

My feeling when it was over was that it is “good enough.” The film starts out well, and soon earns a lot of goodwill and elevated hopes because it’s obviously serious, interesting and character-focused. And while it all remains pretty good, comparatively, the hopes one has for it start to slowly deflate as it becomes apparent that while being very good, it’s just not all that great. For one, the story is simply not that interesting or original, and the more one starts to piece it together, one realizes that slowly revealing the details of it was one of the only ways they could make it interesting. The characters are well-written, but still cliches. Bridges’ character, while well acted [although inadequately written] is essentially Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. In fact, the whole film, while it has some nice elements, will ultimately go down as a footnote to No Country for Old Men. 

What else? Ben Foster is excellent, and is really the one who deserves to be nominated. Bridges is great as usual, but one starts to think how powerful he could have been had his character been better written with his own arc and backstory. Chris Pine continues to be just fine, with the appropriate gravitas, and yet… this guy just slides right off the screen. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly WHY his performances are so bland, because all of the details of them are perfectly fine. I got sick of the constant stream of debt services signs filling in as shorthand for the poor economic state of the place, which made me admire how effortlessly they were able to have economic desperation seep out of every frame of The Last Picture Show. And there are also technical things, like actor’s mouths not matching their words, a spatially-incoherent shootout, and one flat-out disastrous edit that makes it look like the Ranger’s truck is directly behind the robbers, when it is actually miles away.

Nevertheless, it did adequately fill two hours, I was kept intrigued, and is, ultimately, good enough. What it serves best as is a statement on the current state of the film industry. It probably got as far as it did because it is so similar to other films that we are familiar with. It bears the mark of a generation of writers / filmmakers for whom creativity means producing pale copies of pre-existing works. It displays writing that is pretty good when compared to the script for Batman v Superman, and since Batman v Superman is all there is now, is considered “pretty good writing.” In some of the technical mistakes, like when you’re watching a character’s lips move without matching the words, you can practically taste the low budget, which, in a way, is one of the more charming things about the movie. I did want to like it, and though I’m ragging on it, did like it well enough. But if you’ve never seen No Country for Old Men, you know what you should do.

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