June 4, 2020

Movies at Home: Oscar contender ‘Hell or High Water’ elegizes a tactile past

The 89th Academy Awards show is set to air Feb. 26, which means there is less than a month to catch up on the films nominated for awards. Although there are numerous titles to see, a safe bet to cover the bases is to watch the nine Best Picture nominees. One of those films is the pseudo-western “Hell or High Water.”

The film tells the story of two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, as they rob a series of West-Texas banks, all of which are branches belonging to the same company. After establishing a pattern, the crimes come to the attention of a Texas Ranger nearing retirement, played by Jeff Bridges, who takes the case knowing it will be his last hurrah in law enforcement. What follows is a game of cops and robbers, which plays out against the timeless plains of the Texas landscape.

David Mackenzie (“Starred Up” and “Perfect Sense”) directs the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), which lays out the story as an elegy to an older time. Connecting the film to the stylistic genre ticks of a western is easy to do, given the visual language of the location, energetic bank robbing sequences, and dusty horizons dotted with cowboy-hatted figures.

However, that longing for something that has passed is central within the story as well. Pine’s character is hell-bent on ridding his life of his current issues so that he can reconnect to and fix his past.

As the movie progresses, we learn that part of the stolen money will go to securing the futures of his estranged sons and part of it is to right the wrong of his land being taken by the bank. He orchestrates these robberies as a solution, after the passing of his mother, to the financial woes that have been brought on by a corrupted system. The robberies serve as a simple answer to a complex problem of corporate greed and carelessness.

Pine and Foster work well as brothers and help to create a real dynamic between them. Pine is the younger brother, quiet and thoughtful, whereas Foster’s role as older brother is an unpredictable live-wire. Bridges, who has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, plays the Texas Ranger as an intelligent and apprehensive good ol’ boy.

Despite Mackenzie’s Scottish background, he immerses himself in the unique heritage of the American west. He paints a vast canvas of endless, uninterrupted land lying below an ominous and equally endless sky.

The contemplative cinematography harkens back to the philosophical westerns of Sam Peckinpah, using that language to infuse the story with emotion. The two brothers, undoubtedly made of their own short-comings (and obviously perpetrating inarguable crimes), are not heroes or villains but both and neither. They are the Robin Hoods of their own lives, solving their own problems through stealing from the haves and giving to the have-nots.

If there is any downside to the film, it is that the first half struggles to live up to the second half, making the whole experience good but slightly uneven. It feels as though Sheridan’s script tries to pack the set-up with both the energy of the robberies and the tragic themes of the past having to reckon with the changes of the present and future. The attempt is noble but in its less-than-two-hour runtime, it feels like its missing elements that could have made it perfect.

Alongside its Best Picture and Supporting Actor nods, the film received an additional two Oscar nominations including film editing and original screenplay.

Michael Williamson is a communications and electronic media and film double major, graduating in May who plans to go on to attend graduate school in film history or communication and media.

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