Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

12 September 2016

Serious and Sentimental

You've probably heard good things about Hell or High Water, the new Texas-based crime film from Scottish director David Mackenzie. Everything you've heard is true. Hell or High Water is a superbly balanced mix of intensity, comedy, and thoughtfulness. This is a heist film starring Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the criminals and Jeff Bridges (still cranking out excellent performances) and Gil Birmingham as the Rangers trying to catch the criminals.

What is perhaps most intriguing about Hell or High Water is the way the film distinguishes these two, though. Many a heist film in the twenty-first century is interested in framing criminals and law enforcement as identical forces, more or less equally matched and more or less morally equivalent. But in Mackenzie's film, the criminals are dirt poor, totally broke – and law enforcement is well funded, obviously the protectors of a civilization that the film equates with the middle-class. This difference between the two forces undergirds the entire film, but is almost never discussed in a way that felt to me didactic. There is a moment in the film's third act, for example, when Hell or High Water finally visits Jeff Bridges' house. The camera sits, quietly looking over a green, well-manicured lawn onto a tidy suburban street. It takes a second to sink in: green grass. We hadn't seen anything like this for the entirety of the film – the majority of the film takes place in burning fields and deserted trailers, in cheap restaurants, abandoned banks, and depressed townships – and now here it is, a beautiful irrigated lawn. This is a place the film's criminals could never have hoped they could live.

Mr. Foster and Mr. Pine.
The acting in Hell or High Water is excellent across the board. The first person we see is Dale Dickey, and as soon as I saw her I was delighted. She's an excellent character actress, and beginning with her boded well for the film. Bridges is in top form (he's very funny in this, in fact), and the leads (Foster and Pine) are doing excellent character work. I know Foster is not everyone's cup of tea, but I love him. He's energetic and engaging, and he has a way of being an asshole with a heart that I find very moving. And let's take a moment and give props to Chris Pine. This is an actor who is the star of an enormous franchise; he plays James Tiberius Kirk for god's sake. And yet he constantly does movies like this, much smaller character parts (like last year's Z for Zachariah) where he is delving deep into intriguing characters. One of my favorite performances in Hell or High Water, though, is Katy Mixon as a sweet waitress taking to make ends meet. Mixon brings everything to this little part and creates a beautiful character.

It is Mackenzie's directing and Taylor Sheridan's script, though, that are the real standouts of Hell or High Water. Both have done excellent work here. This is a tightly plotted, emotionally moving film that surprises even when it seems to move in predictable ways, and that leaves room for deep character development even as it often functions in a high-octane, heavy action mode. It's just excellently done.

* * *

And then last night I opted for something sentimental. A based-on-a-true-story kind of conquer-your-demons thing about a Māori chess champion dealing with schizophrenia and poverty. I watched The Dark Horse for its star, Cliff Curtis, whom I almost always love, but I was gritting my teeth in preparation for the film to be "inspirational" and "heartwarming". I am almost never interested in this kind of sentimental narrative.

This is a story about a down-on-his-luck man who gets a second chance at life teaching chess to poor kids, many of them homeless, orphaned, and hungry. Meanwhile, he must battle poverty as well as his own mental health, which is precarious, and deal with his brother's masculinist, violent treatment of his nephew Mana, who comes to depend on his unstable uncle.

But The Dark Horse is better than its genre at almost every turn. Curtis is good, even if the plot is full of clichés, and he is supported admirably by Wayne Hapi, Kirk Torrance, and especially James Rolleston (who is really fantastic). I really liked The Dark Horse and found it engaging throughout, even if I already knew all of the moves it was going to make.