Hell Or High Water



Like Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is an elegiac, meloancholic modern-day western in which the strongest element is the milieu. In this case, that is contemporary small-town West Texas, which seems as exotic and lonely to this Sydney-and-Los Angeles based critic as the red desert of Sen’s films.

This is not just a bank robbery movie but one of the subset of bank robbery movies where the robbers really hate the banks. The twist here is that everyone else does too, in a way that couldn’t be more 2016. It’s not that the leather-faced, unironically cowboy-hat wearing, armed-to-a-man denizens of this world are on the robbers’ side; they just hate the banks more.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the robbers with an axe to grind; they’re brothers, and one is calm and thoughtful, the other wild and dangerous (guess which is which and you’ll be right; these two have not been cast against type). Jeff Bridges, in a role I suspect will garner him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, plays the Ranger pursuing them alongside his deputy, played by the always entertaining Gil Birmingham, who has the dryest delivery in movies.

The sad, dusty towns against which this classically-oriented story play out are breathtakingly evocative, as are the bodies and faces of all the Texans we meet along the way. It’s its own universe. Details are tremendously revealed through an almost perfect union of character and dialogue: when questioned by Bridges, one old timer says that the brothers were “lean, like cowboys.” That’s enough of a concept for a movie of its own.

Mackenzie, working from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who also plays a lean cowboy), parses out the main characters on a fascinating slow-drip feed, keeping us in a perpetual state of languid suspense. The story is evocative of classic westerns but offers surprising twists and turns, all built on careful construction of character. There’s a spare but extremely apt original score by – yes! – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who are drawn to dust, obviously.

This is a political film shot through with a quiet but deliberate anger. The banks in these old towns are brighter and cleaner than the wrecks surrounding them: after all, they’ve got all the people’s money. And guns – well, guns are everywhere. Every man in the film has one, mostly concealed. Dramatically, it ties the film to John Ford, John Wayne and the classic American West. Ideologically, it’s terrifying.

This is an excellent film and will probably feature in a few categories at the Oscars – besides Bridges for Supporting Actor, I’m thinking Screenplay and possibly Best Film. See it.

The Program

program_xlg***1/2 (out of five)

Stephen Frears knows how to make movies. Check out this selection from his CV: My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena. If you can’t find something there to love, you don’t appreciate cinema.

His ferocious portrait of Lance Armstrong’s doping program is as cold and steely as its subject. There’s no time wasted here on wives, children, parents, childhood, religion, politics, puppy dogs or pussy cats. This film is about bicycles and drugs – mainly drugs.

Of course, it’s really about Armstrong, and as played superbly – and very, very coldly – by the extremely gifted Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma, Lone Survivor), he’s a creep. This adheres to everything I’ve read and seen and heard about the cyclist, which amounts to a lot. Even his attempts to be charming are creepy. His ambition is so naked, so transparent, he cannot even pretend to give a damn about other people.

Set up against Armstrong is Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who was instrumental, but not solely responsible, for exposing Armstrong’s staggering levels of deception. As played amiably and professionally – as usual – by Chris O’Dowd, Walsh is a decent enough good antagonist (to this story’s villainous protagonist) but the circumstances of history prevent them from having a proper showdown, and thus we the audience from achieving emotional catharsis.

That said, I was gripped throughout. I’m a sucker for the material, granted, but that’s because it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. If you’re green on Armstrong or a Tour De France junkie, there’ll be something here for you. As usual for Frears, the craftsmanship is superb, and the casting in particular is inspired: Lee Pace, Jesse Plemens and a surprising and pleasing Dustin Hoffman are all great in their roles. The one bum note is a truly weird performance by Guillaume Canet as the godfather of doping, “Dr.” Michele Ferrari. It may well be that Ferrari used cyclists like rats in an experiment, but to play him like Dr. Frankenstein from an early talkie is a bit much.