Monday, August 22, 2016

High Water Mark

Went to the movie shows twice this weekend after staying away from them all summer. Seriously, this was just the first time I'd been compelled to go since Shane Black's The Nice Guys in May. The year started off so strong, but man, this summer blew. Anyway, I saw David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water Thursday night, and I liked it. Quite a bit.

Maybe too much.

Meaning...

It went down so smooth, so easy, so clearly made to please me that it made me suspicious. I keep asking myself what I missed and my guess is - nothing. I think... I think I got it all.

Is that a complaint?

It's not, but it's left me with the uneasy feeling that perhaps it was just a (very) well-executed bank-robbing thriller with a solid cast and better (much better) than average aesthetic choices, and that I'll be forgetting it soon.

Like I said - I liked it. But I wanted to love it. And one crucial piece of my loving a movie typically has to do with its jagged edges, its extra-crunchy or surprisingly chewy bits that I'm left gnawing on or (maybe not even completely) digesting for a good while to come. Hell, I wouldn't say I loved it, but I am still working on David Ayer's Sabotage two years later - that thing was prickly and messy and a welcome surprise and I want to revisit it often to see how my feelings and thoughts change.

An apt comparison might be Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace - another movie about blue collar brothers neck-deep in a pool of circumstantial and behaviorally-earned shit that I wanted to love, but only liked. The plot, the amazing cast and how beautifully everything was assembled on screen were all perfect for my sensibilities, but the film was pretty much forgotten as soon as I left the theater.

Hell or High Water is better than Out of the Funace, but I think both may have suffered some for the seriousness with which they're presented. In the end both are pretty stock thriller material, but are presented burdened by a leaden atmosphere in lieu of emotional weight - as if apologizing for the inherent excitement of the material (or worse, though I don't think this is really the case with either film, chastising the audience for looking for thrills in the atmosphere of violence).

The opening scene of the film is a perfect example - the heist is appropriately tense, expertly frustrating and thrilling and the getaway features terrific camera work with a propulsive energy set to kick this motherfucker off, but the film backpedals awfully fast into a somberness seemingly intent on killing your boner and insisting that what we're in for is not meant to be fun.

Which... c'mon, this is a piece of "Fuck the banks" porn, which I am whole-heartedly behind, and it is appropriately complicated by characters we can neither 100% support nor condemn, but that doesn't mean that we can't 100% enjoy the ride. Can a film be tragic and kick ass at the same time? I think Sam Peckinpah proved it so, and I wouldn't be surprised if Mackenzie or screenwriter Tyler Sheridan cited Peck as a major inspiration, but it seems to me that the real way to make a memorably complex experience is to balls-out the action and slip that sour flavor in beneath so that it's only experienced as an aftertaste that recontextualizes the whole thing.

I think that was probably the film maker's intentions and from the critical response I'd say they were mostly successful (again - I liked this movie) - the best example being the mountain top showdown - but if I were to take a stab at saying why it wasn't more successful for me my first guess would be the soundtrack.

Holy shit, what am I saying? First off, I fucking love Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's work - hell their score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the all time greats, but that is an entirely different type of picture - ethereal atmosphere that you marinate in rather than a ticking clock thriller. And the other cuts by artists like Gillian Welch, whom I enjoy, just seem out of place (by being too on the nose). Aside from a well-utilized Scott H. Biram drop, the film's best music cue is the trashy metal blasting from the obnoxious green car driven by the asshole at the gas station - that was perfect.

What could have worked better?

Here's where I'd advocate going the Michael Mann/Thief route where he nixed the original idea of authentic Chicago blues for juxtaposing the blue collar workaday thieves with possibly up its own ass electronic stylings of Tangerine Dream. Yeah, a fucking techno score or even shitty pop-country music probably would have complimented the movie better than the potentially self-congratulatory picks that reaffirm the audience's good taste rather than seem a believable soundtrack for the exploits of these ground into the dust motherfuckers (kinda like that argument about the kid in Stranger Things having an Evil Dead poster on his wall in 1983 middle-America).

Maybe I should stop picking nits and back off it though, because Hell or High Water is very good work from everyone involved - Ben Foster and Chris Pine have a believable brotherly dynamic, Foster not getting over the top and Pine never feeling the need to posture more macho than he ought. Jeff Bridges teeters toward self-parody, but lands a handful of high-quality moments that make his paycheck worth it and the supporting cast are the rising tide that elevates the whole affair - most especially Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Kevin Rankin and Dale Dickey. This flick ain't setting the box office on fire and despite my bitching here I think that's a fucking shame because this is exactly the kind of smart with heart populist fare that we need to inoculate ourselves against the pandering pablum it feels we're drowning in.

Next up, Saturday I caught Jean-Francois Richet's adaptation of Peter Craig's novel of the same name, Blood Father, and in juxtaposition to Hell or High Water, this one achieves a weight beneath its pulpy surface through a transcendent lead performance going all Jimi Hendrix on top of an AC/DC-like dedication to delivering the gnarly genre goods (how's that for yanking it out my ass?).

Font and center is Mel Gibson cast knowingly as a bad guy who's less repentant than realistic about his situation and his actions and culpability in the wreck his life has become. When his runaway daughter contacts him out of the blue for some run-money, he wants to help and may be angry with her, but is the last person to judge for stupid mistakes.

Turns out she's on the run from some very bad people and has a drug dependency to boot. It's another he's no good, but he's good at bad not quite redemption movie full of clearly going for thrills action and a not-quite metatextual penance performance from its star (the opening lines of the movie are Gibson staring at the camera and confessing he's a bad guy who pissed away his life on alcohol and hurt people - the camera pulling back to reveal he's at an AA meeting).

The difference between the two films for me is that Blood Father embraces its pulpiness and becomes something (slightly) more while Hell or High Water strives for more and (sometimes) succeeds. I have a feeling I'll be returning more often to Blood Father - I'll be looking at the crazy-eyed guy playing a crazy-eyed guy and thinking damn if this is his audition for the titular role in an adaptation of Benjamin Whitmer's Pike - it's fucking his.

Blood Father too is bolstered by supporting turns from Michael Parks, William H. Macy and again Dale Dickey.

Both films are worth your time and struggling to find an audience. Go forth.

8 comments:

Lionking Cosby said...

I haven't seen Blood Father but for me Hell or High Water achieved a sort of epiphany about poverty and pain that few films reach. Chris Pine'final soliloquy serves a similar purpose as Timmy Lee Jones in No Country For Old men. It is the crux of the film. When he calls being poor a disease I felt that in my bones. It's neither pathetic nor self pitying. It's just an axiomatic statement. Pine is a revelation here. Ben Foster is unsurprisingly twitchy and spastic. But their chemistry as brothers never hits a false note.
Just my two cents. Which I should have kept because I need the money.lol

Lionking Cosby said...

I haven't seen Blood Father but for me Hell or High Water achieved a sort of epiphany about poverty and pain that few films reach. Chris Pine'final soliloquy serves a similar purpose as Timmy Lee Jones in No Country For Old men. It is the crux of the film. When he calls being poor a disease I felt that in my bones. It's neither pathetic nor self pitying. It's just an axiomatic statement. Pine is a revelation here. Ben Foster is unsurprisingly twitchy and spastic. But their chemistry as brothers never hits a false note.
Just my two cents. Which I should have kept because I need the money.lol

jedidiah ayres said...

That scene is pretty terrific.

jedidiah ayres said...

and to re-iterate I did like the movie... just nitpicking

Lionking Cosby said...

Yeah... looking forward to checking out Blood Father

Lionking Cosby said...

Lol I know. My date at the movie called it No Country for Old Men with laughs lol

Lionking Cosby said...

Lol I know. My date at the movie called it No Country for Old Men with laughs lol

Lionking Cosby said...

Yeah... looking forward to checking out Blood Father