Thursday, September 1, 2016

On HELL OR HIGH WATER

Add the name Ben Foster to the "When Will The Academy Give You An Oscar Nomination?" list of actors.  Once again, he has amazed me with a movie performance.  He's been amazing me since the 1990s.  Ben Foster is so fascinating and powerful as one of two bank robber brothers in West Texas.  This new movie is like a classic Hollywood western set in modern day.  Getaway cars replace the horses.  The movie is HELL OR HIGH WATER.  It's one of the best films I've seen this summer.  Ben Foster plays the hot-tempered, in your face, gun-totin' ex-convict brother.
A very scruffy Chris Pine plays the other brother, polite and quieter and desperate.  He's a divorced father.  He's trying to keep a family home from bank foreclosure.  He wants to protect his kids from poverty.  As he says, being poor "...is a disease."  And that's why he robs local banks with his brothers in their West Texas communities.  It's for the money to keep a home from foreclosure.
This movie is like something Martin Ritt would've directed in the 1960s -- like his classic, HUD, starring Paul Newman.  The opening, establishing shot reminds you of the opening shot of John Schlesinger's MIDNIGHT COWBOY.  You see a slow, dusty, dry small town full of folks who surely are scufflin' to get by.  HELL OR HIGH WATER has a kinship in story elements to Warren Beatty's BONNIE AND CLYDE.  These two blood brothers are outlaws in a country that let them down.  Bonnie and Clyde were Depression era bank robbers.  These two brothers are Recession era bank robbers.  To a degree, they become like folk heroes.  When Jeff Bridges, in top form as a veteran Texan Ranger weeks away from retirement, questions diner customers who may have witnessed a robbery, we get a sense of that.  One old Texan diner says that he was there long enough to see the robbery.  Then, sitting with his buddies, he adds that the bank "...has been robbing me for 30 years."

The two brothers pulled off one job.  Before a second bank is hit, they eat in a diner.  The quieter, troubled Toby leaves the sweetly flirtatious waitress a $200 tip.  Marcus, the Texas Ranger, wants that cash as evidence.  The waitress blocks him on that.  She tells him outright that the tip will be her mortgage payment and help her keep a roof over her child's head.
Foster is fascinating to watch.  Pine gives us another look at his versatility.  Yes, he's incredibly handsome.  That handsome was utilized perfect when he practically stole Disney musical movie adaptation of Broadway's INTO THE WOODS.  He was Cinderella's Prince Charming.  And who knew Chris Pine had such a sensational singing voice?  Chris Pine is not just a hot face.  This performance and film proves it.
You have Tanner and Toby, the two bank robber brothers.  Then you have sort of an occupational brotherhood in the team of wise and wisecracking Marcus and his cop partner, Alberto (played by Gil Birmingham.  Alberto has to endure Marcus' old coot and politically incorrect comments about being Native American.  HELL OR HIGH WATER was directed skillfully by David Mackenzie.  One of the best things about this movie is that it surprises you.  That's why I won't go into detail about its events.  But I will show you a trailer.

One thing I will share.  Tanner and Toby are robbing banks but no one gets shot in the first hour.  And, at the beginning, when Toby wears a ski mask and uses words like "Please" during a hold-up, that's a clue into his character that will be revealed.
Ben Foster...wow. What a good actor.  Sometimes his excellence is almost subliminal.  Look at the emotions that wash over his face as he gazes at the bed in which their poor mother died.  He really brings colors and dimensions to his characters.  I've a been since the late 90s.  In LIBERTY HEIGHTS (1999), directed by Barry Levinson, he made me laugh as the unconventional high school teen from a Jewish middle class family in 1950s Baltimore.  There is discrimination against Jews and blacks.  Not only does he date a black girl, he works his mother's last good never by dressing up as Hitler for Halloween.  I didn't care much for 2006's ALPHA DOG but I could not take my eyes off Ben Foster.  Solid work.  He was Oscar nomination-worthy in 2006's THE MESSENGER.  That's one touching, must-see movie about today's veterans and fallen soldiers in a post-9/11 world.  As for the successful 2007 remake of the classic western, 3:10 TO YUMA, Ben Foster practically stole that one from Russell Crowe with his nuanced bad man gunslinger performance.  He had the villain strutting and moving like he'd been choreographed by Bob Fosse.  And it worked.

In BONNIE AND CLYDE, the young criminals robbed banks and discovered that poor townspeople cheered.  They'd been robbed of their homes because of bank foreclosures. That attitude is in HELL OR HIGH WATER.  In a simpler way, in a far less sophisticated setting, it's as strong a story of those crippled by the Recession as last year's  THE BIG SHORT.

There's a reason for the bank robberies and why the two brothers risk their lives to commit the crimes.  As Marcus the lawman says "...the things we do for our kids."

I recommend HELL OR HIGH WATER.  It has depth, surprise, action and first-rate performances.


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