Hell or High Water(8/14/2016)


I sometimes wonder if I watch too many movies for my own good.  I don’t mean that I wonder if movies take up an unhealthy amount of my time as that’s probably undebatable true but rather I wonder if I’ve ruined movie going itself by watching so many movies that nothing feels original to me anymore.  Plots that maybe seem somewhat familiar to other people feel like outright clichés to me and more often than not I’ll leave a movie naming two or three other movies that it was clearly influenced by and have a pretty good idea what was going on in the back of the director’s head.  Take the new crime thriller Hell or High Water a film that would probably greatly impress a lot of people, and it impressed me too, but about twenty minutes into it I’d already pinned down the films’ major themes and also worked out what direction the story was going in and which characters were likely to die in the finale.  Is that the movie’s fault?  Or is it my fault for having spent my life watching thousands of similar movies?

The film is set in modern day Texas and follows a pair of “white trash” brothers who have found themselves resorting to bank robbery.  The elder brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is an ex-con with an impulsive streak but it’s actually the younger and more sensible of the brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), who seems to be the mastermind behind this robbery scheme.  The brothers appear to mostly know what they’re doing in this scheme, they have a sophisticated plan for ditching their getaway vehicles and they seem to be meticulously choosing their targets, but they aren’t above making certain rookie mistakes like leaving a patron’s gun sitting on the counter as they run away.  What they don’t exactly know is that a determined Texas ranger who’s on the verge of retirement named Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are on their trail and have a better idea of their plans than they realize.

So, first things first: this is a good movie.  Pine, Foster, and Bridges are all good in their respective roles, the bank robbery scenes are well shot, and the moments of economic insight that the filmmakers pepper the movie with elevate it.  It’s plainly better than most of the other movies that will be playing at your average multiplex and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it.  Thumbs up.  However, the question then becomes “is this something special, something worth considering for awards and top ten lists, something that will be remembered and stand the test of time. To me the answer to that is probably “no.”

The movie is clearly very interested in establishing its sense of place.  It’s filled with Texans in cowboy hats, Texas guns, Texas economics, and Texas flavor.  Did I mention it was set in the state of Texas?  That kind of comes up a lot.  At times the movie reminded me of Winter’s Bone, which was a movie I thought was a little over-rated in part because it seemed a little more interested in conducting a subtly condescending anthropological study the place it was set in than it was in actually telling a unique story and developing its characters at time.  What’s more that movie was at least set in a place that hadn’t been extensively documented by the cinema before which is not necessarily something I can say about Texas.  Still there is some undeniable interest to be gained from the film’s look at what became of West Texas, which is to say “not a lot.”  It’s clear that the economy in this place is not booming and that the old west way of life has died a long time ago and the people still trying to live like cowboys are not doing too well.  There’s a moment in the movie where Jeff Bridges approaches a group of witnesses who are dressed in full cowboy attire and hears them say that the robbery they just saw was a strange sight given that “the days of getting away with robbing banks are long gone” with seemingly now knowledge of the irony of what he’s saying given the way he’s dressed, where he lives, and how he’s probably employed.

Those little touches are nice but at the end of the day this is really just kind of the same crime movie I’ve seen a million times before.  It’s quickly revealed that these brothers are robbing these banks to… wait for it… help their family.  Again with the crime films and family.  Family family family.  Oh how these criminals love to go on and on about family.  I’m beginning to think that one of the main reasons that the 80s Scarface has become such a touchstone with a certain audience because it’s the one crime epic that (weird sister issues aside) has its protagonist engaging in a life of crime because he wants money and power rather than out of some bullshit about helping his family.  Now I get why screenwriters go to this trope, they want to give their audience a reason to sympathize with these protagonists while they do wrong, but man am I sick of this.  But this goes back to what I was wondering earlier: am I just getting impossible to really impress at this point?  Well, not exactly. There are still plenty of movies released each year that I do love, but I am getting to the point where I I’m not going to give much more than a passing grade to a movie in a very familiar genre that just doesn’t have all that much to offer aside from its stellar craftsmanship and I don’t really think that this does, but again I want to re-iterate: I don’t think this is a bad movie by any means and it’s only when assessing it’s potential greatness that I balk.



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