Wednesday, August 31, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Hell or High Water

From "Robin Hood" to "Bonnie & Clyde", storytellers have long been fascinated with tales of the opressed stealing from the opressor. Whether it's medieval England or 20th century America, it seems that these narratives will continue to be relevant to society. And now with David Mackenzie's new crime drama "Hell or High Water" we have another example which brilliantly taps into the current zeitgeist.

Indeed, the sentiment is plain as day in the Texas backcountry which forms the film's setting. Signs proclaiming "Easy Credit" and "Debt Relief" are seemingly ubiquitous, a cry for help in a desolate land. Such a feeling of strife afflicts our two main protagonists Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively), a pair of brothers who are desperate to save their family's farm from foreclosure. At wit's end, Toby comes up with a plan to rob the same Texas Midlands banks which have put them in their precarious situation. But a retiring Texas ranger on his last hurrah soon catches wind of their targeted operation. And with the assistance of his partner, he embarks on a mission to stop the duo in their tracks. Soon, what started as a "get rich quick" scheme evolves into something far more dangerous and complex than any of the men could have imagined.

That sense of danger is palpable from the opening scene, as we are introduced to Toby and Tanner as their bank robbery plan is already in motion, quickly displaying their contrasting personalities in the process. In perhaps their career-best performances, Chris Pine and Ben Foster make a believable and compelling match as the central brothers. Foster plays Tanner - freshly released from prison - as impulsive and confident, giving the character an unpredictable edge that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Pine on the other hand is the more measured mastermind as Toby, both weary and wary in a performance that completely upends his image as a "matinee idol" type. Their captivating work could certainly place them in the conversation for Best Actor (Chris Pine) and Best Supporting Actor (Ben Foster) respectively.

Completing this perfectly rugged trio is Jeff Bridges, delivering an equally awards-worthy performance as their relentless pursuer. And it's largely through his various interactions with his partner, witnesses and general bystanders that Mackenzie reveals the film's authentic portrait of Texan-style Americana. As we bask in Giles Nuttgens' stunning photography, the oil rigs and desolate towns give us an immediate understanding of the gun-toting, cantankerous people we meet along the way. Downtrodden but resilient, some of them are naturally sympathetic to the Howards' cause.

Indeed, although "Hell or High Water" is thrilling and wickedly funny, it is never frivolous. Throughout the chase, Mackenzie applies several grace notes with his direction, stopping the action to allow quietly reflective moments for the audience and the characters alike. Working with a brilliant screenplay from Taylor Sheridan and a highly effective score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, he offers a critique of the downfalls of capitalism, as well as making astute commentary on issues of legacy, brotherhood and destiny. This thematic resonance could certainly position the film in the race for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. But regardless of the outcome when it's time for the Academy to select its best, "Hell or High Water" will live on as a cops and robbers movie for the ages.