If we had needed any indication of how the country felt and was turning prior to the election, the success of this movie, critically and popularly, should have rung alarm bells. This is an angry movie in the vein of Butch Cassidy or Thelma & Louise or Bonnie and Clyde or any number of other “stick it to the man” movies. But it doesn’t pretend to be a righteous movie like, say, The Professional. It is entertaining (though with a ton of mumbling that my sound system couldn’t overcome), but not a fun entertainment despite some funny moments.
So what is Hell or High Water? It is a movie of revenge and of family. Oddly, it is in many ways a more violent and unnerving approach to the same base issues in Captain Fantastic, which resolves everything a bit more humanly. Admittedly, Fantastic shifts focus before the end, though it does have a wonderful Noam Chomsky quote that is apropos of both movies (and the country/world today): If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.
But back to the movie at hand. Chris Pine (Z for Zachariah) transforms himself for his role. It’s no surprise that he took it either. Forgetting any aspects of quality, it is a nice counter-balance to his turns as Kirk and Prince Charming. Ben Foster (Warcraft) and Pine make a great pair of brothers, and Foster gets to cut lose and let fly his inner craziness. But the real awards notice has been focused on Jeff Bridges (The Giver), whose laconic Texas Ranger brings to mind many before him, including Tommy Lee Jones’ work in No Country for Old Men. In fact, this movie as a whole echos that movie’s sensibility. It is those echos that diminish it for me overall, but it is still a solid turn at a neo-Western with some good surprises.
Director Mackenzie (Perfect Sense) took his sensibility to Sheridan’s (Sicario) script to balance out the violence. For all the intensity of the plot and action, it remains a small character film, which is its strength. But ultimately, it felt unfinished and bitter-sweet. Probably not an unfair ending to the story, but not particularly satisfying for me as a viewer. I honestly can’t tell you whether I enjoyed this or not. There is some good work and it was compelling story-telling. But the message and the outcomes left me empty rather than with questions, concern, or energy. If you’re going to create a parable for the times, and this is that in some ways, then you need to leave your audience with a sense of needed action. Perhaps that’s unfair and I’m just lensing it all through the last couple of months of US politics, but that’s the business… art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in an ever changing context.