Movie Review : Hell or High Water (2016)
The 2017 Academy Awards will be held next Sunday and every year, I'm trying to review every nominees for Best Picture, which I inevitably fail at. I failed at it again this year, watching only six out of nine nominated film except this time I've seen every film that interested me. I had purposefully kept David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water for last because it seemed like the kind of movie I would thoroughly enjoy before even pressing play. I couldn't have been any more wrong about that. Hell or High Water is indeed a stark, gritty and gorgeous-looking crime drama just like I love them, but it's exactly like every stark, gritty and gorgeous-looking crime dramas I love. It has a terrific sense of style and absolutely no identity of its own, which makes it an undeniably pleasant yet somewhat hollow viewing.
Let me dig myself out of this hole before you start pelting me with rotting vegetables.
So, Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers starting a bank robbing spree in order to save the family ranch from foreclosing. Toby (Chris Pine) is the noble one who's sacrificing his existence to secure a better future for his ex-wife and two sons and Tanner (the talented Ben Foster) is the crazy one who robs banks because he enjoys waving guns at people and because his brother asked him to. Their plan is going smoothly until Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) an old school cop on the brink of retirement, is assigned to the case and starts figuring out their pattern. The bank robberies were always a self-defeating endeavor for Toby and Tanner, but with Hamilton forcing them to rush their plans, they might not even beat the deadline to prevent foreclosure.
How many stereotypes could you find in the paragraph above? I got at least three: the righteous outlaw crusade, the noble/crazy outlaw brothers and the almost retired cop being assigned a dangerous case. I would find others if I kept digging. That's my problem with Hell or High Water in a nuthsell. This movie doesn't have any ideas of its own. It borrows just about every elements from other iconic movies, namely No Country for Old Men from which it heavily borrows visually and narratively. Don't get me wrong, Hell or High Water looks like a million bucks. Every frame is meticulously studied up to the choice of colors in post-production. It doesn't look unique, though. It borrows from classic Westerns, modern Westerns, Southern Gothic literature, many, many crime movies but it doesn't manage to create something original with its influences. Hell or High Water LOOKS great but doesn't really have a soul.
I'm being harsh on the movie because it looks greats most than it IS great like a beautiful women with no conversation, but I don't want to be dismissive of it. There are things Hell or High Water does well. The last 30 minutes of the movie were particularly enjoyable because they swerve from the predictable course the film was on and raises an unexpected question: what are the boundaries of the law of men? When does it become OK to throw out the rule book of ethics, decency and lawfulness? It's tough for me to be precise because it involves major spoilers I don't want to give away, but viewers who will suffer through the formulaic first hour of Hell or High Water will be rewarded. It transforms from a soulless patchwork of influences into more or less a bona fide modern Western with religious undertones. The proble is that I didn't buy into the build-up to this epic confrontation. At all.
Hell or High Water was the last movie I wanted to watch before the Oscars, this Sunday. If I had to rank every nominees, it would look something like this: 1) Moonlight 2) Arrival 3) Manchester by the Sea 4) La La Land 5) Hell or High Water and 6) Hacksaw Ridge. Nothing blew me away except for Moonlight and maybe Arrival and the winner for Best Picture should either be the aforementioned Arrival, Manchester by the Sea (my dark horse pick) or the favorite in Vegas La La Land. When I started doubting Hell or High Water on social media, lots of people became defensive. Lots of people liked the movie for giving them a slick, crafty version of a story they wanted to hear anyway. I still stand by my word, though. Hell or High Water is a competent, but throwaway movie that isn't going to survive a couple years of perspective. When the next stark, gritty and gorgeous-looking crime drama will hit the market this year or the next, it will fall into cinema oblivion. Saying it belongs there would be unfair, but Hell or High Water is style over substance and will always suffer comparisons to movies who actually bring both variables.