Saturday, February 25, 2017

My favorite best picture nominee

I don't have any formalized Oscar preview post this year, but I did think the approach of the Oscars made a good opportunity to both rewatch and write about my favorite of the best picture nominees. I watched it for the second time, but this is actually my first chance to write about it at any length on this blog, and it's long overdue. (I did review it and discuss it during my year-end rankings post, but this is the first time it's gotten its own post.)

No, it wasn't La La Land or Moonlight, though I did write a post last week in which I touched on which of those presumptive favorites I'm rooting for. My favorite of this year's crop was, in fact, David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, the most pleasant surprise among the nine nominees. (The most unpleasant surprise? Hacksaw Ridge.)

I might have taken the time to rhapsodize about this movie in October, but I felt like I'd said exactly what I wanted to say in this review, which I will again point you to now. The second viewing gives you the chance to see it with fresh eyes, and notice things you didn't the first time, which of course I did. It was also nice to see it through the eyes of my wife, who was seeing it for the first time and whose desire to see it was primarily responsible for getting it on the schedule. (Though it was me who pressed the issue. Not much pressing was needed, but left to her own devices she probably would not have scheduled it as an Oscar appetizer of sorts, especially since she says she is not going to watch the ceremony this year -- the first time in our history she won't see any of the show if she sticks to that.)

So without any further ado, my new thoughts about Hell or High Water. Oh, and MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, STARTING IMMEDIATELY.

Consecutive portents

Watching this movie a second time with a knowledge of who lives and who dies put me in mind to notice certain tricks Mackenzie uses to telegraph what's going to happen. Of course, they weren't particularly obvious -- the best filmmaking is subtle -- but once you know, you can appreciate them all the more.

Just before the movie is set to begin its climax, which will leave two of our four main characters dead, we get some hint as to who those might be.

One of the warmest scenes in the film comes as the two bank-robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), are engaging in a little of old-fashioned roughhousing by sunset at their ranch, set against one of the film's many perfectly mood-setting song choices. It's an elegiac moment that certainly suggests what's about to happen to one of them, but we get an idea which one when Tanner walks out of the frame, leaving Toby there looking after him.

Saying that this telegraphs his death might be a stretch if Mackenzie didn't do the same thing in the very next shot. This time it's our other team of buddies, rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), separating for the night as they have been, as Alberto is so eager to do, and Marcus so loath. Alberto does the same thing, walks away from Marcus in the same direction Tanner walked away from Toby. Only difference is that the camera follows him for a moment as he heads up toward his room.

In a film all about people being left behind, economically (the financial crisis) and culturally (Native Americans losing their land and prominence), this is the most literal instance of two men being left behind by their other halves -- in one case a "better half," and in one case maybe not so much.

Or maybe? Read on ...

What did Toby do?

One of the most fascinating unknowns in this film is the ways in which Toby is a bad person. It's clear he is. He doesn't deny it. His family doesn't deny it. Even his brother, who is far worse than he is by most superficial measures, doesn't deny it.

But in the penultimate scene of this film, we find out that Toby is not a suspect in the bank robberies carried off by his brother primarily because of his squeaky clean record. He even looked after his dying mother for three months.

So Toby is not a criminal, but he is a shitty father, husband, and all around citizen. "Don't be like us," he tells his estranged son.

So what did he do?

Something he's done has pissed off his ex-wife and his kids awful good. Alcoholism is certainly suggested, as his son rejects his offer of a beer just so he doesn't have to "be like" his dad. But what else was there? Was there violence? He seems so averse to it.

Or does he?

The scene where he savagely beats the hot shot at the gas station who pulls a gun on his brother is certainly telling. This man has beaten a man savagely before. One just hopes that man was a man, and not his wife. One just hopes that man was an adult man, and not his son.

So Toby certainly has something to atone for. We just don't know what.

Let's just hope it was only cheating with a local floozy he picked up at the bar.

The music

I noted something I had forgotten in the film's opening credits, which is that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis wrote the score. I saw Nick Cave (and Warren Ellis?) in concert only a month ago, though not because he's a personal favorite. I didn't know him at all before my wife introduced me to her favorite musician, and in those dozen years I've developed a healthy appreciation for his work.

The score is really great, but more than that I noticed the soundtrack choices, which are largely comprised of some offshoot of country music. Well, this is the first time I'm considering buying a country soundtrack. Country is not far removed from rock, folk or a couple other genres I like better, and the most interesting songs are the ones that dabble in a couple genres at once. That may ultimately lead me to purchase this soundtrack, after all. (Unless I can find it at the library, which would be even better.)

Why do Toby and Tanner stare?

The first time I saw Hell or High Water, I think I figured the various scenes of Toby and Tanner staring out across the Texas plains from their ranch were just a bit of iconic posturing by Mackenzie and his cinematography, Giles Nuttgens. These scraggly-looking brothers looked particularly good swept by light wind and staring out into infinity, I thought.

On this viewing, I recognized these shots' purpose.

They're watching, waiting, to see if anyone is after them. It's yet another example of how every detail has been planned out in carrying out their week-long spree. They don't only bury their stolen cars in the back yard, but they watch doggedly from the uniquely good vantage point they have on whether anyone is coming to arrest them. At this ranch they can see for miles on all sides, so any approaching vehicle gives them a chance to trigger the next part of the plan -- whatever that may be.

Because Toby has planned things so well, we never get to find out what that might have been.

What happens after the end?

Do Marcus and Toby have that final showdown? The first time I didn't think so, but this time I'm not so sure. Toby says he "just wants it to all be done with," the closest he comes to admitting to Marcus that he was his brother's partner on the bank robberies. But it also suggests that he can't live with the guilt of the price that has been paid -- four lives -- for the acquisition of his family's future security. The movie has a happy ending, of sorts, but you can't escape the toll of the loss of life. Toby mourns for his brother, sure, but you get the idea he bears even more regret for the three people who shouldn't have died, when Tanner probably should have.

The two set an indefinite future date to meet at Toby's house in town. They both seem to agree to it. They both will come armed. And maybe, they both will leave this earth, just as their partners did, because in the old west, justice eventually comes for all.

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