Tagged David Mackenzie

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.

Jack O’Connell Gets STARRED UP

Starred Up. 2014. Dir. David Mackenzie.
Starring Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Raphael Sowole, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Rupert Friend, and Sam Spruell. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Not Rated. 106 minutes.
Drama

★★★★★
STARRED-UP-1sheet-600x866
Starred Up (the slang prison term for a criminal who is transferred early from an institution for young offenders to an adult correctional facility) is the story of Eric Love (O’Connell) – a young offender starred up to the big house. An angry young man, Eric ends up in a rough prison where he quickly butts heads with the prison officials from guards to the Deputy Governor of the entire facility. To make matters even worse, Eric has been housed in the exact prison where his deadbeat father Neville Love (Mendelsohn) is currently serving, what we assume to be, a life sentence. A prison counsellor (Friend) who runs a group helping offenders with their anger issues tries to extend a helping hand to Eric. At first the young man is highly resistant. However, after some time passes, Eric realizes this may be one of the only keys to ever having a normal life again. Faced with more and more to push him towards breaking, the discovery that his father has become homosexual due to his extended stay in prison, and almost everyone around him expecting him to fail, Eric must try and overcome his own issues to break free from the rage which consumes him and maybe someday eventually walk out of prison a free man.
starred-up-bg-4-620x413The majority of prison films often take on the same sort of plot. Starred Up might seem similar to certain earlier works like Bad Boys or even a bit of Scum, however, it is an excellent prison drama in its own right. One of the obviously excellent things about the movie is Jack O’Connell. His performance is a knock out. I absolutely think this will be one of the most overlooked performances of last year. I’ve seen plenty of praise for O’Connell in this film, but not enough awards will be heaped upon him. Though, awards do not matter, it’s always fun to see a young actor get recognized for really spectacular work. I think he’ll definitely benefit from this performance going forward.
Starred-Up-Image-1-600x400One of my favourite actors in recent years has come to be Ben Mendelsohn. His performance as Neville Love is brilliant work. There are a lot of prison hard men portrayed in movies, and I think Neville is definitely near the top of the list in regards to which ones are truly tough guys. Part of this comes from the relationship between him and his son Eric. He and O’Connell play well off one another, but truly it’s the father-son relationship and how everything plays out between them which is the most exciting part of the movie. The tension between Eric and Neville after the son finds out his father has become gay in prison is truly wonderful drama. I thought the scene where Eric discovers this part of Neville’s prison identity was absolutely marvelous – really subtle and perfect acting from both parties.
unnamed-2Another significant aspect about Starred Up is also what it has to say overall about youth offenders, or offenders in general, who cannot be conformed to easy living in prison. Better yet, it demonstrates how willingly prison officials often are to simply snuff out a problem than truly deal with it and rehabilitate prisoners, or at the very least try to anyways. Eric Love is a very difficult, angry, violent young man. His story shows us how these types are usually dealt with violently, as opposed to being given therapy – like one counsellor (played by Rupert Friend) tries to give him. In the end, without spoiling anything, luckily Eric still has people watching over him, who care for him, and do not want to see the worst happen. I also think the fact Starred Up ended on a positive note helped the film not play into all the trappings of regular prison films. Often there are grim endings, or endings which come off too bittersweet. As the end here does come off positive, it still isn’t totally optimistic, as Eric is still in jail, as well as his father. Regardless, I think the finale played a lot less typically than other similar movies, and I enjoyed the last moments – very real, very touching.
Starredup_0609This is absolutely a flawless prison film. In a sea of very generic prison movies, from drama to action, Starred Up is one of the great modern works of this sub-genre. The performances really helped to elevate an already enjoyable script. O’Connell and Mendelsohn together are really something. Not to mention the supporting cast were also on point. I really thought all the actors who played characters in the support group with Eric were pretty damn good. There were great and tense emotional scenes involving these characters. The script is the best part of this movie, though, because it really does more than work as a drama set in prison – as I said before, it attempts, and successfully in my mind, to tackle issues involving the rehabilitation of prisoners. One of the messages lingers on until the end – some of these guys just need a chance. Not all, maybe not many, can be legitimately rehabilitated, but some just need the chance. Eric Love got his. Luckily for him, being incarcerated with your father in the same prison can be productive for the mental health because he suffers from issues surrounding his father. This a great story about redemption, love, and male bonding. Stellar film. One of my top from 2014.