Tuesday, the National Board of Review will announce its best films of the year, the first in what will be many year-end best-of lists from critics’ groups. And as Oscar season comes into full effect, there’s no film that could use the vote of confidence more than David Mackenzie’s contemporary Texas western, “Hell or High Water.”
With its robust-but-not-recordbreaking Metascore of 88, “Hell or High Water” (CBS FIlms/Lionsgate) is both an entertaining genre piece and a thoughtful art film. It’s an excellent piece of work, but it’s not a film that telegraphs its Serious Intentions — and that’s where the critics could lend it some needed gravitas. It may or may not be an advantage that the modern frontier heist thriller is the highest-grossing independent film of the year ($27 million) —and just hit Blu-ray and DVD release. The critics may want to give it a boost — or decide that other less successful or newer films need their help.
See my video conversation with the film’s strong trio of character stars. Chris Pine and 2016 Indie Spirit Award Supporting Actor nominee Ben Foster have never been nominated for an Oscar, while eminence grise Jeff Bridges has six nominations under his belt; he won in 2010 for “Crazy Heart.” How do they handle performance anxiety? “It’s in the gut,” said Foster and Pine. (Bridges just gets sleepy.)
This modern frontier heist thriller earned such high praise partly because the western couldn’t be more timely. After the lingering effects of the mortgage crisis, brothers Tanner and Toby (Foster and Pine) are driven to rob several local banks to keep from losing their East Texas family ranch, chased by aging Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges) and his half Comanche, half Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). These characters reflect the disenfranchised and unhappy electorate that voted for Donald Trump, although Scottish director Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) insists that was “not deliberate.”
“It’s weird,” he told me in an interview. “When we made the film a year and half ago, at that time Trump wasn’t considered anything. It’s interesting to find ourselves aligning with things that became the frontline reality of this country. The dispossessed of Middle America is very much what it’s about. We’re taking the pulse of the nation, examining the frayed nerves at various parts of this country.”
Said Bridges, “A lot of people say, ‘It’s a good movie for these times.’ Isn’t it always ‘these times’? We’re such a selfish species. That’s how we roll, man. Either what’s best for us personally, or our family, or our party.”
“Hell or High Water” sprang from the mind of Taylor Sheridan, a former actor who, in the tradition of “The Last Picture Show” and “Hud” author Larry McMurtry (another Texan whose stories fueled some great Hollywood movies), set his story in the Lone Star State. Sheridan (“Sicario”) scored an Indie Spirit nomination for his layered screenplay, which isn’t just a genre exercise; this story digs into how and why men fail to communicate honestly with each other. While the movie also scored a Spirit nomination for editing, it did not land Best Feature or Director nods.
Pine felt “a joy in the free jazz” of shooting with Mackenzie, who was channeling the freewheeling films of the ’60s and ’70s — from McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” (also set in Archer City, Texas) to “Fat City,” “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” and “Charlie Varick” — “when films were about things,” he said. “American cinema has lost touch with that poetic realism. Maybe there’s an appetite for that. This film touches on race, guns, banks, oil, dispossession. There are a lot of fault lines of modern America coming together in this narrative which is on the face of it a cops and robbers movie.”