The LAMB Devours The Oscars 2017: Best Picture Nominee: Hell Or High Water

by Jay Cluitt · January 28, 2017 · Featured, LAMB Devours the Oscars · 1 Comment

Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:

Richard Kirkham from Kirkham A Movie A Day is here to talk about the first of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Hell Or High Water:

Every year there are films that get nominated for Best Picture, that you know will have to settle for being happy with the nomination itself. Those films are Award worthy but they don’t have the buzz, hype or critical momentum at the right time. Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, and Her are some examples from the last few years. They may have been somebody’s critical darling, but they were left at the altar before the ceremony even began. Unfortunately, Hell or High Water is destined to join that long line of excellent movies that will be remembered for a long time, but not because they have an Oscar to put next to their title. You can see this coming from the lack of a nomination for the director of this film, David Mackenzie. While it did manage to score an acting nomination and two more for script and editing, Hell or High Water simply does not have at this point enough heft, to drag itself across the finish line in front of so many other hotter contenders. Frankly, that’s a shame, because years from now, when someone is grousing about the Academy Awards, Hell or High Water will be the L.A. Confidential/Shawshank Redemption or Apocalypse Now of its year.

This movie has two very strong elements that might still manage to prove this prediction wrong. It has an exceptionally fine cast without a flawed performance in sight. It also has a script that touches on deeper issues than might be apparent from its contemporary Western classification. Let’s save the performance aspect for the end of this discussion and start instead with the thematic depth of this movie. If you saw last year’s The Big Short and you were confused about how all that financial manipulation managed to make tons of people rich, while others were robbed, and nobody went to jail, this movie actually explains it more clearly than Margot Robbie in a bathtub.

Toby and Tanner Howard are brothers from different ends of the gene pool, but both have loyalty to each other. Toby has a family that he can see slowly setting into the hard luck poverty that he and his own brother grew up in. Their recently deceased mother has willed her estate to the grandsons, but the debt burdened ranch is not a solution to that poverty, except there is a secret. In Texas, the surest way to wealth has always been oil. Wouldn’t you know, there is oil on this property but unless Toby can pay back the abusive reverse mortgage, the family will lose control of their ticket to economic security. The financial wizards of Wall Street could leverage themselves with other people’s assets and double down on the gamble and win. Toby and Tanner can’t do that, but they hit on another plan to accomplish the same objective.

Watch the vacant storefronts that pass by in most of the scenes set in their automobile. West Texas is not only a geographic wasteland, it is an economic one as well. The small towns are dying as a result of a changing world and the only ones who are making much of a go of it are the banks. Toby and Tanner consult with a friend who is an attorney, he correctly points out that the bank loaned their Mother just enough to get by, but also charged her just enough to ensure she would not be able to pay it back. The question of morality this film brings up is simple, what exactly is meant by the term “Bank Robber”? Which of those words is the adjective?

Tanner is the older brother who has been to prison and knows the ropes of violent crime. Toby is the smart one who can see an answer to the problem but can’t pull off the strategy without his brother’s help. On the other side of the law, we meet two Texas Rangers, also as different from each other as the brothers are, but also strangely connected the way long term partners and friends end up being. Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker spend most of their time chasing down drug addicts who commit random crimes, but Marcus can smell that the series of robberies they are tracking are something different. Convinced that the robberies are some form of vendetta against the Texas Midlands Bank, Marcus and his partner try to deduce where the next robbery will come, and they almost get it right.

The two law enforcement agents understand the world they live in, so do the two criminals. The money men have it out for the little guy, but everyone has the soul of a Texan in him somewhere. Alberto, the laconic part Indian Ranger played by Gil Birmingham in an understated performance, is resigned about these events. The banks are stealing the land from the ancestors of the people who stole the land from his ancestors. Tanner participates in his brother’s scheme out of loyalty, and his general criminal disposition. He has no illusions, he doesn’t know anyone who got away with anything, ever. Ben Foster steals scenes and most of the movie with his defiant spark plug of a thug, who has a sense of personal honor that comes from his Texas roots.  Chris Pine as Toby will surprise those who only see him as a pretty boy in action films like this years earlier The Finest Hours, co-starring Foster, and his third turn as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek Beyond from July. Pine holds his own in the most intense scene in the film, a showdown of sorts with wily retired Ranger Hamilton, Jeff Bridges, in the sole acting nomination for the film. It’s hard to be steely eyed and avuncular in the same scene, but Bridges manages to sell both in the film’s climax.

The parallel relationships in the movie are constantly in front of us. The two brothers fight and bicker like big kids, while the two Rangers find snide put downs to toss at one another. There are long scenes with the brothers on the porch of their mother’s house, discussing their past and planning the next job. Marcus and Alberto are similarly perched on motel chairs and probably looking at the same sunset as the brothers. Tanner is restless, with a hint of ADHD while Marcus is an insomniac, who can’t let an idea rest without poking at it. There is a lot of time spent in cars by both sets of men, and those moments are filled with humor and angst. A chilling scene at a gas station stop shows that Tanner is not the only brother who is dangerous. The action packed shootout after the last job ends in bitterness for both sets of men.

A reason the script gets a nomination is that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan understands the ethos of this part of the world. The brothers get shot at more than once by well-armed local citizens. A fact of life in Texas where the concealed carry permit is easy to come by and frequently used. In the state of Texas is the city of Waco, which is home to Dr. Pepper. When Toby gets his brother the wrong drink because the store was out, Tanner complains just as a Texan would:

This is Mr. Pibb. I asked for a Dr. Pepper.

Toby : So?

Tanner: Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.

Toby : Drink up.

This film has been a moderate success and has rightly received much critical praise, but it is a film made with a sensibility much different than most of the movies it will be competing with. Its budget is small, its storyline is direct, and its performances are low key but spot on. The two women who wait on each set of men could not be more different, but they are both so authentic as to make you feel like you sat down in one of their establishments just yesterday. Although filmed in Clovis New Mexico rather than Texas itself, the movie feels authentically about the west end of that state. To be honest, Clovis might as well be a suburb of Midland or Odessa.
Everyone knows that the financial institutions here are the real villains. Marcus however, knows that justice involves doing what is right by your comrades. He does not care about the law at the end of the story here, he cares about Texas Justice. Toby knows he has done right by his family, and even manages to do right by the institutions he has robbed to a degree, but there is still a balance owed, that like the mortgage, is due by Hell or High Water. Subtext be damned, this movie tells a story that too many people will understand. If it does come up short on Oscar night, it won’t be for lack of quality, it will simply be one more time that the little guy got screwed and justice has to wait.

What did you think of Hell Or High Water?

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