From Western

“My life is like an empty cylinder”: Modern Cowboys & Daddy Issues in THE SISTERS BROTHERS

Jacques Audiard's film adaptation of THE SISTERS BROTHERS deals with the Wild West becoming a modern world.

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HELL OR HIGH WATER: Desperation and Death in the Dirty South

Hell or High Water. 2016. Directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.
Starring Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Dale Dickey, William Sterchi, Gil Birmingham, Buck Taylor, Kristin Berg, & Katy Mixon.
Film 44/OddLot Entertainment/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 102 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Western

★★★★★
posterDisclaimer: This review may contain several spoilers concerning the film’s finale.

The prospect of David Mackenzie (director of the phenomenal jail film Starred Up) and Taylor Sheridan (Deputy Chief David Hale on Sons of Anarchy and screenwriter of Sicario) making a film together is enough to get me on board. They’re each talented. After both the aforementioned movies it’s not hard to get excited – Starred Up is one of my favourite prison stories out there and Mackenzie’s directing helped the actors shine; Sicario comes at you like a shot in the night, written with depth by Sheridan.
Post-2000, the Western has seen a comeback. Not that every really went anywhere, but it’s definitely not as popular as it was in the 1950s and 60s when cinema saw everything from High Noon to Shane to The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy.
But over the past 15 years or so we’ve seen films like The Proposition, The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaNo Country for Old Men, the excellent Elmore Leonard television adaptation, FX’s Justified. Most recently there was Bone Tomahawk, and you can’t forget Tarantino and his Western-styled Django Unchained, as well as The Hateful Eight.
Much as I love all these more contemporary Westerns, and as much as I consider a couple of them genuine masterpieces, none of them capture the modern spirit while paying homage to the classic Western feel, characters, and plots. Perhaps it’s the past couple years especially, one thing’s for sure – Hell or High Water epitomises the economic struggle of people clinging to old ways of life in a world moving further into modernity every minute, for better or worse.
pic1Throughout the film there’s a pervasive sense of desperation. The seriousness yet amateurish execution of the brothers and their robbery(/robberies) is quickly made evident. Both Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) are complicit in their crimes, although the former is crazier, a little less predictable. Toby wants to secure a future for his boys. Tanner’s already been to prison, he has nothing left to lose and only money to gain. So the desperation is different between the brothers.
Another part of the story involves how, in some places like little rural towns, not-so-subtle racism is rampant. There are a bunch of perfect instances of this at various points. “Theyre not even Mexicans,” an old man says as one bank is robbed by the Howards. When ole Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges at possibly his greatest; that’s saying something) questions people on the robbery he leads with they must’ve been “Mexican, black” and later Hamilton even says to his own partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) that he knows “how you injuns like the bottle.” Hamilton represents that weird dichotomous supposed Southern gentleman who’s borderline to full-on racist at any given moment, yet a guy who’ll stand with a slight bow for a lady. There’s a lot of good writing from Sheridan, who seems intent on showing Texas in all its glory, whether that’s good or bad depends on the moment. But it’s warts and all, which makes everything feel right in place.
pic2On a technical level, Hell or High Water is beyond fantastic. The cinematography helps show a small town in an economic slump, its slightly desolate sense of atmosphere, from which the desperate characters reach out to us begging for understanding. The look of the film is simultaneously gorgeous and full of grit, a perfect combination somewhere in the middle of the two. Then there’s the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who coincidentally did the score for another masterpiece Western (The Proposition). Their sound is perfect for the tone of the film and lifts many a scene, lending gravitas to even the tiniest of moments.
Again, I have to praise Sheridan. He writes the action well, opting not to go for all guns and chaos and instead focusing most on the characters to give us the impact necessary. Moreover, the dialogue’s the fresh kind. Not afraid to feel informal, personal, as well as the fact it’s funny at times and also deadly serious where necessary. Above all else, the Howards feel like actual brothers, Hamilton is a true old school Southern man. There’s a spectacular true to life concealed carry gunfight in one of the banks, followed by other Texans with guns waiting outside; sort of perfect, on the nose representation of how an actual robbery in the South could go down. Just all around awesome stuff continuing the screenwriting roll Sheridan is on as of late.
Tanner: “Only assholes drink Mr. Pep
Toby: “Drink up
On display in the screenplay is that dying Southern ideology of pretending racism is all in good fun, jokes and stuff, when really the laughs are only a cover for the true prejudice hiding underneath. This is clear through the tenuous partner-to-partner relationship between Marcus and Alberto, which flares up now and then getting fairly serious from time to time. Further than that, it’s tragically funny and at once awful that the cops blame blacks and Mexicans for so much crime when it’s actually two dirty white boys running around committing crimes. Classism is also there, as the two dirty white boys, like so many immigrants, are only trying to keep themselves from being fucked over ultimately by the banks and bullshit bureaucratic policy that affects the most vulnerable. In the end, it’s the elusive American Dream that’s always knocking at the door, increasing the desperation of cops and criminals alike.
pic3This is a downright incredible Western, such a great contemporary take on the genre. Hell or High Water seems standard until the tail end when the brothers’ plight opens up story wise, revealing a few things that make the film’s final ten minutes one mighty treat to chew on: “Im the man who killed your brother,” as if ripped from an old Gary Cooper flick or something with John Wayne.
All three of the leads – Bridges, Foster, Pine – are impossibly perfect in their respective roles. Bridges, whose characters feel more good ole boy than Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men and thrice as grizzled, gives one of the best performances of his career. He shines as a man who’s well cemented in leading roles yet also has the makings of an impeccable character actor. The little things about Marcus Hamilton make him enjoyable, even as you hate him.
A 5-star bit of cinema, one of the best contemporary Westerns out there; if not the best in the past couple decades. I can’t for more directorial efforts from Mackenzie, proving himself double after this and Starred Up. And if Taylor Sheridan keeps producing the work he’s been pumping out in the last couple years, he’s bound to give us lots more to enjoy.

Bad Day at Black Rock: An Open, American, Hardboiled Wound

Bad Day at Black Rock. 1955. Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman; adapted by Don McGuire & based on a story from Howard Breslin.
Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, & Walter Sande.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Mystery

★★★★★
POSTER John Sturges – a fine specimen of a director. He directed films from the mid 1940s right up into the latter half of the 1970s. I love a writer-director, but something is exciting about some of the older generations of directors, the guys that just went full force at their sole job as director and did a damn good job at that. Sturges is one of those types, whose main concern was the directorial choices necessary for making a picture.
For me, the era of his greatest work begins after this film, Bad Day at Black Rock. This is the story that captured a specific current in the American public which not many movies were ready to tackle. In 1955, with the wounds of World War II, Pearl Harbor and everything in between still fresh, a story like this one couldn’t have been easy to tell, nor would it have been easy to swallow. Also considering the plot is set in later ’45. What’s best is that it isn’t just a heavy handed toss at trying to be interesting. The acting is stellar, beyond that. The screenplay is tight, the at times minimalist dialogue edges just close to exposition before keeping itself wrapped in mystery. And finally Sturges himself adds that one perfect element as director, alongside the work of D.P. William C. Mellor with his eye for gorgeous landscapes and bringing to life the vivid portrait of a tiny town on the edge of a nowhere desert. There’s not enough time to talk about how good this movie is, and believe me, I love to ramble. I love movies from any era. I know not everybody does, that’s fine. However, you’re really doing yourself a disservice as a lover of film, if you call yourself one, by not seeing Bad Day at Black Rock. Right down to the score, this is a flawless bit of cinema that cries out to be experienced.
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Right off the bat you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to Spencer Tracy. He has a charm that is immediate to me. Always, in any film. It’s the mystery of John J. Macreedy which I find intriguing, and from the moment you lay eyes on him there’s a quality that draws the viewer in. He’s so nonchalant, mysterious yet confident. His demeanour is sly, but still open. He almost feels a walking contradiction, though not in any way offensive. So then once the men in Black Rock start hovering around, causing him grief and getting into his business, it’s even more interesting to watch. This seemingly nice, normal guy – aside from having a missing arm, that doesn’t appear to give him much difficulty working around – gets thrown into the mix of a town that has more going on than it looks on the surface. Tracy’s ability to make Macreedy so calm and collected serves the film well, as it isn’t just the mystery of Black Rock but the mystery of him as a character that propels us further, wanting more. OH! When he kicks the shit out of that one guy with his single hand, it is in no way cheesy or forced or Hollywood-ish to the point of ridicule. He makes it genuine and bad ass.
The whole cast is spectacular, it isn’t solely Tracy. You’ve got Ernest Borgnine playing a sassy backwoods-type; not a huge role, but he does it justice with a proper menacing streak. Robert Ryan is wonderful – in parallel to the character of Macreedy, Ryan’s Reno Smith is calm in his own right, just that he’s calm for much different reasons with different things at stake than Macreedy. I love Ryan in general. Here, he gives a nice performance in a devious role. Then filling out the cast is Lee Marvin, always a treat no matter how big or small a role he plays; he’s welcomed addition to the rest of the players. As well as Walter Brennan and Anne Francis, each doing good things with their small parts. Overall, this is a classic cast of familiar faces that all make their characters stick in your mind.
But make no mistake, it’s Tracy who sells the film. Ten times over.
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There’s a great little car chase over a desert ridge that’s lots of fun, even without all the more contemporary flash and any crashes/explosions. What I dig most is the way it’s filmed. You’d almost swear that in the more stunt-like shots Tracy and Borgnine are both actually driving. Although obviously they didn’t, especially considering Tracy’s character has his hand in his pocket the entire time (something they did well on for continuity), this is still an admirably filmed sequence. All around I love the look of the movie, the cinematography is every bit the classic Hollywood style and it is pure, simple beauty. There’s something to be said for shooting on film, as opposed to now where it becomes more expensive for directors to do so, many opting for digital. And not to knock digital, I dig certain filmmakers because they can make it look as good as film. Yet these old movies, the ones shot through the 1940s and into the 1960s, they have such a nostalgic, perfect feel. There is a vibrancy that is so clear, so pristine, it makes movies look like something right out of a memory.
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Bad Day at Black Rock does something I’m a fan of, in terms of its screenplay. Mixing genres is something that, when done well, can be terribly fun. What I enjoy above all other elements is that the story is full-on western while also draped in the trappings of the film noir genre. We have that staple of the western, a lone and mysterious man riding into town, then there’s the setting itself being a small town out in the middle of the mountains, in the midst of desert. Everything screams Wild West, yet we’re set in 1945. On top of that there’s the noir-like plot of Macreedy searching for a man, one we gradually find out more about. The way the story’s structured is very much like an old hardboiled fiction novel, like a slice of Raymond Chandler crossed with John Ford. Truly a treat to watch play out. Best of all, the plot contains some touchy subjects for a film made in ’55. There’s a sensitive piece of American history involved, Pearl Harbor pulled into the story, but it’s well explored in a way that doesn’t feel like the writing stands on a morally high ground, rather one of introspection via mystery-thriller. This film touches at an open American wound that was freshly pulsing at the time. Kudos to Sturges and all involved.
This is a 5 star flick, all the way down the line. From the great performance by Tracy, to a drop of Ryan and Marvin, to every last god damn minute of the film. I can’t recommend it enough. It took me 30 years to see it, and I’ve already watched it a couple times so far this year. Might have to make it a hat trick before I turn 31 in the fall.

Civil War-Era Creeps in DEAD BIRDS

Not often do we get a Civil War-era horror story. Screenwriter Simon Barrett pens this fascinating indie crossing supernatural horror with a tale of the South, slavery, robbers and gold.

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