Hell or High Water

The Western Returns

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water snuck quietly into theaters with little fanfare and some of the best acting of this or any year. Don’t miss it. This is a Western that transcends the good guy/bad guy formula with absorbing character portraits. Set in a West Texas town during recession times, stores are closed and farms are being taken by banks for unpaid loans they shouldn’t have made in the first place.

Watch the relationships – between two brothers, between two lawmen, between the head lawman and one brother. Each character is drawn in subtle layers by a uniformly fine group of actors. Director David MacKenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan have wrapped their tale in contemporary violence, but this is far from the old fashioned good guy/bad guy story.

Ex-con Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and his brother Toby (Chris Pine) are trying to save the family farm after their mother dies. To make the payments owed under threat of foreclosure, they rob the banks for just the amount of money they owe, no more. Watch the brothers break the law, one with gusto, the other with reluctance. Their bond is firm, whatever lies ahead.

When one robbery goes wrong, they are chased by Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Comanche teammate (Gil Birmingham). The aging Marcus and his Indian partner exchange affectionate racist taunts as Marcus quietly makes a plan to outwit the robber brothers.

Understanding the significance of the new oil rigs sprouting everywhere, Toby is determined to hold the farm for his sons. Lawman Marcus is determined to catch the pair before he slides into unwelcome retirement.

The odd part of all this is that we find ourselves rooting for both sides while time and again the movie surprises us with new twists. The relationships that develop among these characters are subtle, unexpected, and very moving. We are wonderfully absorbed because every one of them seems to have grown literally out of the rock solid West Texas soil.

Credit Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine with creating an extraordinary and unexpected connection between the Ranger and the reluctant bank robber brother. Their performances are delivered in an understated display of slow motion beauty. Equally good as the bombastic, con man brother, Ben Foster makes sure we understand the thrill that propels him. Unrepentant, he loves being a bad guy.

Beautiful camera work captures vast country bisected by long ruler-straight roads that roll through flat fields toward the curve of the earth. The barren desolation of the place is overwhelming.

The vast emptiness is spotted here and there with the rusted water tanks and crumbling houses of a plentiful past dotted now with experimental oil drills. But the real draw here is that in an otherwise violent story, Ben Foster, Chris Pine, and Jeff Bridges create characters who move us greatly. And so and at last, the Westerns we used to love are back but with a fine 21st century twist: these cowboys are real people.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Hell or High Water
Word count : 500
Running time : 1:42
Rating : R
Date : August 26, 2016


The Hateful Eight

Thugs, Guns, Blood

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino did one thing right in his latest movie; he nailed the title: The Hateful Eight. And you will be stuck with all of them in a blood-soaked barn for two hours and forty-seven minutes. Tarantino’s movies usually contain a few redeeming features. Just two here, and they are dwarfed by the problems. But to be fair, let’s start at the beginning as if we know nothing about the awful unfolding.

In post-Civil War Wyoming the West is being settled and a blizzard is sweeping the landscape. A tiny speck appears in the distance. It is a black stagecoach pulled by teams of black and white horses – a glorious sight against the vast whiteness of the windswept snow. The opening minutes – all set to Ennio Marricone’s grand score – are breathtaking. Who, we wonder, would be out in that storm?

He who dares is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter bringing a criminal to Red Rock to be tried and hung for murder. The killer is the infamous Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mr. Ruth has her handcuffed to his arm to prevent her escape. Bringing her in will net him $10,000.

Things change when the storm ravaged stagecoach is stopped by another bounty hunter, Union officer Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who talks his way on board for the ride to Red Hook. Five minutes into the film we are in the company of two rough men and an unrepentant murderer with a black eye, bloodied cheeks, and a sharp tongue. They decide to seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a barn of a place known for its woodstove and food. It is here that we begin to endure the introduction, one by one, of stragglers from the storm. We meet Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, and already there, angry old general (Bruce Dern) who is looking for his son. The hateful eight are assembled.

We suffer close-ups of heads exploding as blood and innards flood the air while violent beatings leave victims just this side of dead. Even worse, if that’s possible, only Daisy and Samuel L. Jackson’s Major spark our interest. The rest are rotten, dull thugs who are verbally and physically violent while yelling ludicrously in modern slang.

When we learn that no one is who he says he is, that mystery fails to stir us because the alternate identities are as densely uninteresting as the initial ones. But hearken! The one exception to these discouraging generalizations is a crackerjack performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh who endures the entire 167 minutes handcuffed and bloody while spitting out her own venomous insults. Who is this nasty, brave, nutcase? In this movie, she is the only character who tweaks our curiosity. Certainly her creation of Daisy Domergue will stand as a classic of Hollywood villainy.

Leigh and the blizzard are Tarantino’s redeeming features here though neither is enough to save this movie.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Title : The Hateful Eight
Word count : 495
Distributor : The Weinstein Company
Running time : 2:47
Rating : R