Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster shine in this American tragedy masquerading as a crime drama.

Hell or High Water

United States. Directed by David Mackenzie, 2016. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. 102 minutes.

Roughly halfway through Hell or High Water, Alberto Parker—a Texas Ranger of mixed Comanche and Mexican heritage, played by Gil Birmingham—lays out the film’s thesis. Looking over the picked-over remains of a dying Texas town, he observes that the land once belonged to the Native American peoples. Then the whites came and stole it. Today, the descendants of those white ranchers and farmers find that land being stolen from them in return, by the banks who were supposed to help them buy and keep it.

One such theft drives the film’s plot. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) has discovered oil on his late mother’s ranch, and he wants to give the land to his estranged sons in trust. Problem is, he can’t afford to pay off the reverse mortgage his mother took out on the property. With the help of his troubled brother Tanner (Ben Foster), just out of prison, he launches an audacious plan to pay back the bank with money stolen from its own branches. The resulting robberies draw the attention of the Texas Rangers in the form of the aforementioned Alberto Parker and his senior partner Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot staring down the barrel of retirement.

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (also writer of Sicario, but possibly best known as an actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy) present us with standard crime drama tropes, such as the wise and world-weary cop on his last case, and the dichotomy between two brothers (Toby is down-to-earth, Tanner impulsive and hot-headed). But they resist the urge to paint the film by numbers, instead positing the story as an American tragedy. Not to say it’s all doom and gloom—Sheridan derives a few moments of levity from Hamilton and Parker’s working relationship—but darkness hangs heavily over the procedure. Toby meant well, but once he set his plan in motion, he sealed his own fate…and the fates of others.

Mackenzie underlines this theme with his visuals, presenting the setting as a hellish, desolate wasteland, seemingly populated only by lost souls and those who seek to take advantage of them. (Hamilton and Parker, representing the law, serve to preserve order but don’t act as moral agents.) Expect plenty of shots of thirsty desert and winding highways, but delivered in a subdued style. Action is used sparingly; violence is quick and brutal. Australians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who perhaps know Americana better than most Americans, add to the atmosphere with a sparse score occasionally punctuated by songs by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch.

Ultimately, though, this is an actor’s showcase. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham all bring depth to archetypal characters running the risk of seeming two-dimensional. But Bridges brings genuine likability to his gruffness (and seemingly endless supply of racial humor), and Foster reveals the humanity behind Tanner’s nihilism and borderline psychosis. These two roles are somewhat larger-than-life—this is Texas, after all—but neither actor goes over-the-top. Pine and Birmingham put in less showy performances, all the better to contrast with their partners.

Hell or High Water is more than a crime drama or action-thriller; by contrasting its character archetypes with the harsh reality of unrestrained capitalism’s vicious economic circle, it’s nothing less than an elegy for the American Dream. One of the year’s best.

Hell or High Water poster

In a Valley of Violence

Ti West’s latest is an entertaining, if shallow, Western homage

Ethan Hawke stars in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE

United States. Directed by Ti West, 2016. Starting Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan. 104 minutes.

As cinematic genres, the modern horror film and the Western are intertwined. The generation of horror auteurs born between, say, 1935 and 1950 came of age in an era when Hollywood churned out oaters a dozen at a time. A great many of the films young Johnny Carpenter would have seen in his youth were horse operas, and that’s why so many entries in his filmography—Assault on Precinct 13Escape from New York, Vampires—make more sense if you consider them as Westerns. And now that “throwback horror” is a thing, Carpenter and his contemporaries having influenced a younger generation of genre filmmakers, the news that professional ’70s/’80s pasticheur Ti West has thrown his hat into the Western ring should not surprise us.

Indeed, with In a Valley of Violence West delivers a classic-formula Western of the kind Sergio Leone used to make, complete with a strong streak of gallows humor (the film almost qualifies as a comedy), morally-ambiguous protagonists, and expansive wide shots of desert wasteland. Even the opening titles crib from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the score—courtesy Jeff Grace, West’s standard musical collaborator—puts in an admirable impersonation of Ennio Morricone.

The film’s plot progresses slowly and simply, as a man-with-no-name (actually he does have a name, but it’s not even mentioned until at least thirty minutes in, so we’ll just call him Ethan Hawke) arrives in Denton, known to the few locals as the Valley of Violence, a dying town of maybe a dozen residents, most of them corrupt bullies whom Hawke runs afoul of almost immediately. Valley of Violence possesses a lack of plot sophistication and thematic depth that won’t surprise those familiar with West. The characters get more definition than the story, but the genre’s icons and tropes quite obviously guide West’s hand, and he relies on the ensemble—which includes John Travolta and James Ransone as the primary antagonists, along with Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim), and the always reliable Larry Fessenden (please tell me I don’t need to explain Larry Fessenden to you)—to perform most of the heavy lifting.

This isn’t necessarily a strike against the film; even in his best work, such as The House of the Devil, West has always emphasized style over substance. But he brings something of a half-baked modern sensibility t0 the film; this doesn’t always detract, and indeed many of the funniest and most memorable moments come from it. But I can’t shake the feeling that the film would have felt more even had West committed to that sensibility more fully. He never quite reconciles the film’s nominal theme, the idea that violence begets nothing but more violence, with the vicarious thrill of watching Hawke hunt down and kill the bad guys. And while the sexual tension between Hawke (age 45 in real life) and Farmiga (22, and playing a 16-year-old to boot) might not have raised an eyebrow in the real Old West, it’s massively creepy by modern standards. It’s nice that West makes a token comment about that, but it would have been nicer if that comment wasn’t merely token.

Despite my criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed In a Valley of Violence. I wouldn’t consider it an acceptable substitute for The Hateful Eight or even Bone Tomahawk, but as an entertaining genre exercise it squarely hits its target.

In a Valley of Violence poster

My Months in Film: March through September, 2016

An overview of the last six(ish) months

So I’m back, apparently.

I didn’t expect the Gallery to remain shuttered this long: I made some genuine attempts in April and May to get back into the groove…and couldn’t get anything to stick. Real Life was kicking my ass, something had to give, and it was the film writing. I had burned out. I think my exhaustion even shows in the spring and early-summer podcast episodes. I’d been doing this for over five and a half years—starting all the way back in late August 2010 when I launched Forced Viewing—and during that entire time, I’d never taken more than a couple of weeks off from watching and writing. It even encroached on my vacations.

That being said, I never considered not writing about this year’s Fantastic Fest, though. So I was glad to discovered I still had my mojo, and it was great to get back into the rhythm of things. (Even after I caught a cold that turned into a bronchial infection that needed to be nipped in the bud lest it mutate into pneumonia.)

It looks like I have some time to seriously reconsider the future of this site and my film-writing hobby. I’m still determined that reviews will re-commence, at some point. I’d like it to be soon, but I can’t make any guarantees: things are still hairy busy in Real Life. My content schedule won’t be as punishingly aggressive as it was in the past; I’m thinking three movies every two weeks sounds reasonable. But we’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.

And to prove I haven’t spent the last six-odd months just twiddling my thumbs…here are the movies I watched during the hiatus.

Continue reading “My Months in Film: March through September, 2016”

The Hateful Eight

Only Quentin Tarantino could make a film like The Hateful Eight. For that matter, nobody else would even be allowed to make a film like it.

United States. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 2015. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bechir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern. 187 minutes (roadshow edition). 9/10

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, would turn out to be a Western homage to the John Carpenter version of The Thing. Tarantino pretty much built his career by recontextualizing chunks of genres and even specific films and assembling the pieces into something new. When Ennio Morricone, who famously swore off scoring Westerns and Tarantino films, agreed to compose the music for a film about Kurt Russell snowbound and stranded at a remote outpost…well, we should have seen that as a clue to what was going on.

To which I say: cool! I’ve always wanted to see QT play around more with horror elements in his directorial work; I thought Grindhouse would have been much more interesting if he’d directed Planet Terror, not Death Proof. The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite qualify as a horror film, but it’s the closest Tarantino has yet come.

Tarantino casts Russell as a bounty hunter escorting his latest quarry, the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the hands of the law (and, not coincidentally, a handsome payday), only to find the two trapped at a Wyoming outpost by a brutal blizzard alongside some shady characters: a fellow bounty hunter and former Union war hero (Samuel L. Jackson), a one-time Reb terrorist turned lawman (Walton Goggins), a retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern), the local executioner (Tim Roth), a quiet cowpoke (Michael Madsen), and the Mexican left to take care of the outpost in the owners’ absence (Demián Bichir). The distrustful Ruth suspects one or more of the men may not be what he says he is, and believes a plot to free Daisy might be underway.

The story unfolds in classic Tarantino style; in the three-hour “roadshow edition” (featuring extra footage, a musical interlude, and an intermission), almost everything before the break consists of talking, and everything after it consists of action. Dialog-heavy sequences almost always live and die on the actors performing them, doubly so in QT’s efforts. Much of the cast are veterans of previous Tarantino films–Madsen and Roth have been with him since Reservoir Dogs, Jackson since Pulp Fiction–even minor players such as Dana Gourrier and Zoë Bell. Something about working with him seems to fire up his frequent collaborators; Jackson in particular, who seems more engaged with his material than he has in other recent projects such as Oldboy. But the standout here is Leigh, who interprets Daisy as a nexus of chaos given human form.

Tarantino returns the favor by giving the cast great material to work with: meaty dialog and vivid characterization. None of the dramatis personae are heroes or even particularly sympathetic; instead, they’re bastards and psychopaths to a man (and woman). Russell, ostensibly on the side of the law, spends much of his time beating up Leigh; Jackson’s true self hides behind a well-constructed veneer that’s nevertheless as fake as Roth’s Monty Python accent. With the assistance of Morricone’s creeping sinister score, Tarantino never allows the audience to become too comfortable with this lot, with new information constantly forcing us to re-assess what we think we already know. Of course, everything eventually goes south, but there’s no catharsis in the graphic violence that ensues, no sense of karma or justice playing out.

Even at three hours, The Hateful Eight keeps a steady pace–not slow or brisk, but deliberate, not allowing any sequence to drag. The much-vaunted Ultra Panavision 70 format does wonders for the snow-covered exterior vistas, which we knew it would; surprisingly, it plays just as well in the interiors, bestowing a sense of intimacy to the close-quarters sequences.

Like him or lump him–and I’ve been known to do both–Quentin Tarantino remains one of our most steadfastly singular filmmakers, and The Hateful Eight constitutes another feather in his cap. Nobody else could make a film like this. For that matter, nobody else would even be allowed to make a film like this, and that’s what makes it special.


Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Eight

The final day! Featuring: Kurt Russell’s new Western Bone TomahawkLove and Peace, the latest from Japanese director Sion Sono; Sean Byrne’s sophomore effort The Devil’s Candy; the Czech documentary Daniel’s World.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Eight”