REVIEW: Hell or High Water

15 08 2016

Hell or High Water“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.

Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.

And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?

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REVIEW: Starred Up

21 09 2014

Starred UpStarred Up,” not unlike its apparent next-of-kin “Bronson,” falls firmly into the category of great but not sensational British prison movies.  It’s entirely engaging and entertaining, even though it does not look beyond its confined setting.  And I’m totally fine with it.

The film begins with a silent bang as its protagonist, Eric Love, arrives to be locked away.  He’s the spiritual progeny of anarchic Randall P. McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Dean’s renegade Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause.  Already hardened by years in a juvenile facility, Eric arrives to play with the big boys and establish his position at the top of the pre-ordained social structure.

Rising star Jack O’Connell brings writer Jonathan Asser’s creation to vivid life with a viciously physical performance.  O’Connell neither entirely humanizes nor animalizes Eric, yet he’s still a staggering force.  Even as he erects barriers preventing us from really sympathizing with Eric, he becomes all the more enticing of a character.

His insurgency, of course, causes conflicts with other hardened criminals in the pen.  But it also draws the interest of two figures who feel compelled to save Eric from his foolish youthful mistakes.  One is, somewhat predictably, prison counselor Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) who takes more interest than usually in psychologically stabilizing a potentially dangerous inmate.  More surprisingly, the other is Eric’s estranged father Neville (the highly underappreciated Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to make sure his son finds his place in the pecking order.

There’s no conventional battle for Eric’s soul.  There’s no giant climax the film towards which the film heads.  And, yes, there’s also nothing of particularly extraordinary merit in “Starred Up.”  But it has great storytelling and great acting that is wholeheartedly effective for the film’s entire duration.  Sometimes that in itself is sufficient.  B+ / 3stars