Hell or High Water adds grey clouds to the Western landscape

Hell or High Water feels in love with the western and embraces it’s origins

There’s a fine line between action and saturation, and an even finer line between anticipation and boredom, many films have trouble with this balance but not Hell or High Water. The film drops you right into post-recession Texas, hitting you over the head with exposition and one moment later you are in a bank, and the bank is being robbed. There’s humour in the scene and thrills and an immediate Coen brothers air of people being way out of their depth. It pushes you right off into the deep end and once you’ve gotten your breath back it pushes your head back under the water. It does this for almost two hours straight.

Being, in essence, a road movie, the story moves pretty fast, hopping from place to place and never repeating itself. It presents itself as a series of vignettes and character moments, fleshing out its two power couples organically throughout without ever feeling too try hard. One scene near the beginning is all it takes, in which bank robber brothers Toby (Chris Pines) and Tanner (Ben Foster) neatly lay out their motivations. The scene is wonderfully framed outside of a farmhouse, a large steel windpump loudly creaking behind all the talking. Their relationship is unwieldly and bound for danger. Officers Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Parker (Gil Birmingham) motivations are simple, they’re cops, they’re going to hunt robbers.

The film feels in love with the western and embraces its origins, the settings being of small towns filled with local people wearing cowboy hats and moustaches. It wears its influences proudly, the brothers gain their head start due to a technological fault at the bank, allowing them to engage in the freewheeling banditry of the old west. The cop and his native American sidekick must put into place old school police work and rely on testimony rather than CCTV footage. The robberies are a response to a ploy to steal land. The film harks back to the past thematically and literally, through the mouth of Bridges’ soon to be retired cop and through the stoic Native American mouthpiece, Parker, which brings me to my biggest criticism of the film.

Through all the subtle touches and symbolism in the movie, the film draws nice little parallels to class struggles and the American frontier without feeling too forced or preachy, that is until the point where Parker points to a Texas bank and basically says to the audience “here is the message of the film. Banks are bad, okay?” The scene was jarring and way too on the nose for a film so restraint. That being said I can’t be upset about this, the film is smartly written, funny and stunningly beautiful at times. If my biggest complaint about a movie is my only complaint, then it’s done pretty well for itself.

Recommendation

A rare type of film that feels both nostalgic and current, pulled together by good performances and funny interactions. Jeff Bridges provides the comedic glue and Ben Foster brings the sleaze.

Western fans should love it; its desert towns are the perfect setting for the crime. The action is spread out so that when it hits it hits hard. Not a fast paced thriller, although the 100 minutes did fly by.

Don’t Breathe makes sound the ultimate villain

Don’t Breathe cuts through the horror movie chaff and gets to the good stuff

Don’t Breathe is a movie that is clearly excited by its own premise, the movie cannot wait to get its audience into the blind man’s house and let the hunt begin. We get as few scenes as possible to identify with our characters before we are locked in to the house and the real story can begin. When the house is broken into all senses are heightened and dialogue is all but thrown out the window. Putting pressure on the non-verbal elements of the film to carry the audience’s attention. It’s a film that succeeds in visual storytelling, keeping viewers aware enough to piece together the narrative without feeling slow or removing any of the mystique.

The film cuts through the horror movie chaff and gets to the good stuff by limiting its clunky dialogue as much as possible. Each silent moment is both a breath of fresh air and a step up a ladder that could be knocked down at any moment. Don’t Breathe treats its disabled antagonist in the way that horror movie monster’s should be treated, keeping him in darkness and in doorways, shrouded in black and hulking over cowering victims, grunting and growling under his breath like an animal. The effect of his blindness lends him an uneasy air as he stands staring just to the left or right of where he should be, making his presence in the scene seem surreal and misplaced.

The movie should be commended for its simplicity, it takes a simple concept and runs with it for as long as it can. Taking place almost entirely in one location, it squeezes as much as it can out of the woodwork of the house, crawling through crawl spaces and checking every window for an escape. The interior of the house is magnificently introduced to us through one long sweeping take which winks to the audience so hard it could burst a blood vessel, pointing out narrative devices with every pan. The film does seem more self-aware than would be expected, it takes its characters to their extremes, imbibing its blind villain with what is essentially sonar, its situations an ever increasing farce of missed chances and close calls. At times almost devolving into silent comedy routines.

Far from being perfect the film does seem to lose steam with its central premise, adding an extra level of villainy to the blind man that feels somewhat tacked on just to prevent every audience member from rooting for brutal murder. The characters are as thinly defined as can be expected from a typical horror movie and the film seems to end four or five times (each less satisfying than the last), but you shouldn’t go to see Don’t Breathe to see a character study, it is an exercise in teeth grinding suspense and in that it succeeds.

Recommendation

A great pick to see while it is still in cinemas. As most people watching will be holding their breath you should avoid people talking during the film.

The film is easy to digest and sink into. Tense from the minute that it wants to be, slow but not boring. Excellently crafted; it is a simple, entertaining and trashy thriller.