Hell or High Water (2016)

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three star

I’m going to preface this review by saying that Hell or High Water is far outside my comfort zone in terms of genre. A story about a world-weary lawman attempting to chase down & outwit a pair of haphazard bankrobbers just days before his retirement, the film resembles an awful lot of ultra-macho neo-Westerns I’m often told are great, but usually leave me bored silly. The problem is fairly deep-seated too. Even the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men, which I’m sure is fantastic, has put me to sleep every single time I’ve tried to watch it, including twice in the theater. So, I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.

Outside being a fairly standard bankrobbing thriller, Hell or High Water mostly stands out as a screenwriter’s playground. Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, recognizes the rigid restraints of the film’s simple narrative & throws most of his weight into the its quietly humorous dialogue. When Jeff Bridges’s perpetually exhausted Texas Ranger asks a recently robbed bank teller whether her assailants were black or white, she retorts, “Their skin or their souls?” It’s these kinds of colorful turns of phrase that make him mutter to himself, “God, I love West Texas.” I can’t echo that sentiment, but I do appreciate the film’s ability to capture that terrain’s slow, desolate atmosphere by bringing the more action-packed aspects of the plot down to an occasional halt in favor of some porch sittin’ & beer drinkin’, a perfect stage for showy exchanges of phrase. Sheridan understands the glass beer bottles, vastly empty roads, grunts, football, and poverty that make up a large part of that state & he uses that terrain to stage a somewhat believable modern version of a Cowboys vs. Indians Western. One of those Native Americans just happens to be a cop (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Gil Birmingham) trying to hold his aging white partner together for a final ride. His cowboy opponents are two in-over-their-heads brothers living out a revenge plot similar to Jeff Nichols’s (far superior) Shotgun Stories, except their target is a predatory banking institution instead of a rival family. The only question is if the calm, collected half of the criminal duo (played by an admirably restrained Chris Pine) can hold together his wildcard brother (a grimy Ben Foster, who plays the part like Guy Fieri reimagined as a methed-out murderer), long enough to escape the cops’ wrath. The evenly-distributed amusement of the proficient dialogue leaves a lot of grey area of which side to root for here (although, I guess you’d have to be a monster to root for the banks), so the fun of Hell or High Water is mostly in watching the pieces fall into place in an inevitably satisfying way, whatever the result.

I can’t say for sure if I would’ve enjoyed Hell or High Water more if it were staged in a different setting or if it didn’t feature gruff country songs with lines like, “I am lost in the dust of the chase my life brings” (an aspect of the film Nick Cave had some apparent involvement with, speaking of things I’m often told are great but I don’t really understand). My brain does usually shut all the way off when it comes to certain macho genres like Westerns or James Bond flicks or straightforward war movies, though, and I have to admit I didn’t have that problem here. This was far from my Film of the Year, but I was mostly on board with its Who’re the Real Thieves, Really? approach to predatory banking & its last legs lawman performance from Jeff Bridges (which brought me back to the novelty for Kurt Russell’s similar role in last year’s Bone Tomahawk). Like I said, though, it’s the film’s dialogue that really makes it distinct and I suspect that aspect is what’s going to have the moviegoing dads, uncles, and grandfathers of the world chuckling to themselves in delight. This movie was seemingly made with that specific crowd in mind & I’m not sure they’re going to appreciate its finer charms more than I was able to tap into myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Sicario (2015)

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threehalfstar

One of the initial reasons I wanted to check out Sicario while it was still in the theaters was that during the film’s early press a lot was made about the fact that Emily Blunt’s protagonist was almost replaced with a male lead due to pressure from nervous producers, presumably because they believed that alteration would sell more tickets. I caught a clip of Blunt promoting the film on Stephen Colbert’s talk show where she quoted a producer as saying “If you make her a dude, we’ll up the budget,” a fucked up sentiment the actress backed up with, “Welcome to Hollywood.” This gross line of thinking gets more & more outdated every year, especially when you consider the recent success of female-led action properties like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, Divergent, Lucy, and the list goes on. Hell, even Blunt herself outshone Tom Frickin’ Cruise with her action star prowess in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. I initially had very little interest in Sicario based on its trailers, due to its drug cartel-busting subject matter & the promise of a relentlessly bleak tone, but I resented the idea that the film’s lead was once potentially going to be genderswapped to supposedly make more money. I resented it so much that I decided to support the film while it was still in the theater in the simple act of buying a ticket.

It turns out that the film is actually pretty good. I don’t have any particular fascination with the subject of drug cartels & border control outside of what I read about it in the news, so I’d usually be much more likely to seek out a trashier, goofier take on the topic like, say, the recent, grotesque Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage. Sicario is a lot more realistic than that ugly affair, following a multi-agency operation (mostly between the FBI & the DOJ) that seeks to shake up the status quo of typical drug raid protocol in an attempt to dethrone a couple of kingpin brothers wreaking havoc in Phoenix, AZ & Juárez, Mexico. The “war on drugs” becomes quite literal as Blunt’s law-abiding SWAT member goes on a Training Day-style tour of how much more effective it is for drug enforcement agents to break the rules entirely. In an attempt to get a leg up in an ongoing power struggle, the United States government essentially becomes a well-funded rival cartel, resorting to acts of kidnapping, torture, and assassination to get the results that the by-the-books drug raids simply aren’t. When Blunt’s protagonist pleads “What the fuck are we doing?” & “I’m not a soldier,” in protest of their far from legal war tactics, her helplessness as a pawn in the shakeup is alarming. Questionable authority figures played by Benicio del Toro & Josh Brolin intentionally keep her in the dark as they put her life in danger & overtly manipulate her into participating in human rights violations. At one point del Toro snarls, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” That last part may be true, but understanding is not the same as approving.

What Sicario does best is establishing a claustrophobic threat of violence. Early in the film a shootout in a tiny drug house reveals walls lined with dozens of corpses. Bombs go off unexpectedly. Dismembered bodies are strung under overpasses as warnings. Shootouts in traffic jams & underground tunnels cramp the audience into inescapable spaces riddled with gunfire. A tense, ominous soundtrack makes visual cues like night vision, Western landscapes, and blood running thin in shower water look impossibly alien. Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere, that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).

One thing’s for sure: no matter what your mileage with a serious action film centered on US/Mexican border drug cartels may be in general, Sicario would not have been at all improved by replacing Emily Blunt’s character with a male lead, no matter what a scumbag Hollywood producer would like you to believe. The few supporting roles played by men within the film are pitch perfect, especially in small character details like the way Josh Brolin turns the simple acts of whistling & chewing gum into unbearable grotesqueries or in Benicio del Toro’s delivery of cinema’s all-time most violent wet willy (that’s one for the ages, right there), but it’s Blunt’s performance that provides the film with the bulk of its pathos. Sicario is a fine film, but Blunt is a damn fine actor. It’s a testament to the characters of Sicario‘s director & writer, Denis Villeneuve & Taylor Sheridan, that they stuck with Blunt & didn’t opt for that promise of a bigger budget. The results were certainly worthwhile & hopefully it’ll help lead to idiotic propositions like that dying away forever.

-Brandon Ledet