Best Picture Oscar: Hell or High Water [2016]

Roughneck brothers Toby [Chris Pine] and Tanner [Ben Foster] stage a series of small bank robberies around Texas, trying to raise enough money to buy out the reverse mortgage on their parents’ old homestead. They are pursued by dogged and dog-eared Marcus Hamilton [Jeff Bridges]. This reminded me of outlaw tales from the high period of the Hollywood system like High Sierra [1941] or the Oklahoma Kid [1939].

Hell or High Water takes well-worn leitmotifs of grumpy sheriffs, wild outlaws, and The Man ™ and polishes them up with a modern sheen, to be a modern commentary on an ancient antagonism. The performances are committed, even if they are a little archetypal.

For all that this is an impressive production, I never felt like it really committed to itself, retaining a basic ambivalence to its characters and its story. There’s a moment late in the film where Toby is confronted with what he’s done “Four people are dead, and for what?” and the basic problem for me was that the film treats this as a rhetorical question, when it’s just a question for which the film offers no answer. For all that the brothers do, and for all they sacrifice, I never found myself caring about their end game: their goal was unimportant to me. Yet the film didn’t commit to what I think the interlocutor was getting at, which was an existential nihilism where nothing matters. The basic problem is one of closed-down Manly Men ™ unable to process or express their emotions, and at this point that just feels like laziness rather than a profound statement of stoicism.

For me, this film is more like a modern mythic fable than a story about flesh-and-blood people. A parable that can’t commit to a moral determination might be full of entertaining moments, but it’s a hollow experience about a hyper-masculine concept of justice and just desserts. You can read more of why I don’t think this is a Best Picture contender in my previous review.

I think if you like this film you should check out my favourite film from a couple of years ago, Mississippi Grind, which takes similarly broken and closed-down characters and finds a way through their journey to show you the underlying meaning in the characters’ lives. If you want to see how to tell a compelling but emotionally low-key story, watch that instead of this.

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