Thursday, 3 November 2016

Hell or High Water

Modern westerns seem like a bit of a misnomer. The whole idea of the genre is to capture the futility and struggle on the frontier of America, a frontier that disappeared in the early part of the twentieth century. These neo-westerns have shifted the focus of the struggles of the people living in the rural parts of America away from physical dangers to economic threats. Everything from No Country For Old Men to Breaking Bad has included this in some form or other, but nothing has embraced it fully like Hell or High Water.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) have started their week by robbing banks. Not just any bank either, specifically Texas Midlands Bank. They have a plan to rob as many as they can in the week and launder their ill-gotten gains at the Indian casino over the Oklahoma border. The case comes to the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who sets his sights on trying to find out who they are, despite total resistance from a population happy to see the crooked banks getting what they deserve.

A lot of people probably won't know what to expect when going into this movie. It looks like it will have a lot of action like a western or the thrills of a heist movie and it has both of those, but in very limited doses. It is however a slow burning western that focuses on its themes and characters on both a small and grand scale, something which a lot of movies in general are incapable of doing. The economic reality of places like rural Texas is that they never bounced back from the global financial crisis of 2008, but they can see that big cities in their own country are saying that it's over. I don't want to make this review about Donald Trump, and this movie isn't about him, but more than anything this movie really shows the landscape that a political movement like his can be born out of. There are so many references to the fact that small town America is lost and that families are being put out of a living and that's what makes this movie great. There's a level of realism simmering just below the surface that may not be in keeping with the classic idea of realism that was built all those years ago in post-war Italy, but it's there all the same.

The other thing that makes this movie fantastic is its characterisation. There is a distinct lack of characters that have any bearing on the plot and none of these characters are the archetypes that you would find in a western or heist film. Jeff Bridges has played a law man many times before, but never has he been such an abrasive and unlikeable character. Not only is he always antagonising his Mexican/Native American partner Alberto (played so perfectly by Gil Birmingham), but he fails to identify the world in which the other characters live. Chris Pine's Toby is reminiscent of Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler, however his thinness comes from the lack of available food. Ben Foster plays a special level of unhinged that is similar but different to his regular unsettling character.

Hell or High Water is a surprising look at the current economic reality of rural America. It also fights the conventions of genre so much that it transcends any genre and becomes a realistic portrait of life. This is one of those quiet movies that slip past people but ends up winning awards without people knowing it. Definitely go watch it.

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