At first I was only marginally interested in David Mackenzie‘s Hell or High Water (CBS Films, 8.12), mostly due to the familiar genre feelings contained in the first teaser. Bank-robbing desperadoes, low-key sardonic cops on their trail, sunbaked Texas plains. Then I saw it in Cannes and went “whoa, better than expected, the buzz is correct.” It’s a 2016 social undercurrent drama disguised as a cops vs. bank-robbers movie. The social undercurrent element refers to mass hurt — i.e., the financial blight afflicting the hinterland struggling class (in this case rural Texas), caused by 2009/10 meltdown and worsened by banksters — and the need to pay off a mortgage. Hence the bank robberies by a couple of hard-luck brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster).
Then I saw it again Wednesday night at the Arclight, and was able to savor a bit more of the dialogue (I’m sorry but the sound system at the Arclight is a notch better than that of the Salle Debussy) and it all just clarified and upticked and grew in my head.
Just call me woke: Hell or High Water is the best film of 2016 as things currently stand. I don’t care what happens between now and 12.31.16 — it deserves a place at the Best Picture table. It opens today with a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating and an 88% rating on Metacritic.
On top of which I can easily see a little Best Actor action for Pine and/or gurgle-speak Jeff Bridges, and definitely some Best Supporting buzz for Foster, whose working-class scuzziness — chunky physique, scratchy face, seriously thinning thatch — put me off at first, but then I manned up and got past that. At least Foster owns the beer-swilling, two-week-beardo thing, and I was marvelling at the careful English he gave to each and every line. By the finale Foster is quite the tragic working-class hero — a malcontent who has to go down but is nonetheless selfless, sacrificing, a good ole brother with a gun. Hell, he’s almost Ray Hicks in Who’ll Stop The Rain.
Hell or High Water isn’t quite on the level of No Country For Old Men. Call it a close cousin. It doesn’t look or feel as artified as that 2010 Coen Brothers masterpiece. But I’m starting to think that the plainness in HOHW, the lack of arthouse chops and the dealing of straight cards, may be deceptive.
Where No Country is bleak, despairing, resigned and somewhat nihilist (“Ya can’t stop what’s coming”), Hell or High Water, while also bitter and pissed, is a meditative moralistic thing that stands up for the shitkickers. Yeah, I know — outside the megaplex I hate the shitkickers for their under-educated fathead attitudes, atrocious dress sense, an idiotic refusal to vote for their self-interest and their support of a fart-brained charlatan and monster for president, but HOHW‘s compassion for these dumbfucks won me over regardless. CBS Films should be screening the hell out of this thing in Trump Country.
Bottom line: Any movie that rings the bell of people like me (somewhat educated, accomplished, well-travelled, blue-state values, Kooples T-shirts, Italian-made shoes) as well as guys who live in the cocoon of lazy cynicism and insufficient brain-cell counts while wearing flannel shirts, cowboys boots, saggy Levi 501s and swigging Lone Star beer is definitely up to something.