Stream of the Week: WIND RIVER – another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016. Wind River doesn’t disappoint and is one of the best movies of 2017.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl. To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds. That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country. She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country. He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully. There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action. Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant. Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy. He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way. Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny. Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation. She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory. Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent. Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests. Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

     “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily. When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.  I’ve also written an essay on Sheridan’s filmmaking signatures, the films of Tayler Sheridan.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers. It’s now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

WESTERN: alienated man goes native

Meinhard Neumann in WESTERN

In the evocative and thought-provoking German drama Western, a crew of German hardhats sets up a construction camp on a remote Bulgarian mountainside to build a water power plant.  They aren’t cultural tourists and certainly not diplomats, and they see the nearby Bulgarian village as a distraction from, even an impediment to, their project.  Of the Germans, only Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) seeks out contact with the Bulgarians.

Writer-director Valeska Grisebach lets the audience connect the dots about what’s going on. The Germans and the Bulgarians have encounters at the camp, at the riverside swimming hole and in the village.  As one would expect from any modern German filmmaker, Grisebach shines a harsh light on the German sense of superiority and entitlement.  One German even says, “They know we’re back. 70 years later, but we’re back.”  But the characters have dimension.  The blustery project boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) is an asshole, but even he has his own personal and job problems.

Of the Germans, only Meinhard makes Bulgarian friends.  Meinhard is a loner among his co-workers, yet he seems to be searching for something among the Bulgarians and their alien language and culture.  Meinhard is well-traveled and looks like he Has Lived a Life.  He’s not a misfit (he’s very functional), but he hasn’t found where he DOES fit.

What has caused Meinhard’s alienation?  That’s not clear, but it doesn’t need to be.  Hell, Jack Nicholson just shows up alienated in every movie from Five Easy Pieces through The Passenger, and that works out just fine.

Meinhard has no ties.  Asked if he is homesick, he queries, “what is homesick?” He thrives in the simpler culture, and this solitary man finds himself becoming social.  He develops a deep trusting friendship with a local leader, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).

We have the advantage of subtitles, so we know what is being said in German and in Bulgarian. The characters are not understanding about 90% of what is spoken in the other language.  The friendship between Meinhard and Adrian transcends language. The highlight of Western is a beautiful dialogue in which the two don’t understand all (or even most) of each other’s words.

Meinhard goes native.  Will it work out for him?  The Germans and the Bulgarians learn that they are competing for the same scarce resource.  The Germans are always on the verge of provoking a riot.  The insular Bulgarians are wary of strangers.

Western is not a brisk movie, but Grisebach paces it just about perfectly.  This character-driven story is a sequence of revelations, and we need Grisebach to take her time. Grisebach uses the handheld camera effectively to plunge us right into the experience of the characters, who are often trying to discover something about the other guys.

Meinhard Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov in WESTERN

So that’s what is on the screen. I was astounded to learn that Grisebach used no professional actors in Western.  She reportedly auditioned 600 working folks to get her cast.  She snagged two sublime natural talents in Meinhard Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov. Not only that, but Grisebach did not use a script.

Quoted by Stefan Dobroiu in Cineuropa, Grisebach said, “I wanted to get closer to the solitary, inflated, often melancholic male characters of the western.”  Grisebach may not have intended it, but she nailed the Going Native subgenre of Westerns, where a first world man becomes immersed into a native culture, which he ultimately embraces.  Examples include A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves.

I saw Western in October at Camera Cinema Club. It played the Cannes and Toronto film festivals in 2017. Western has a US distributor (The Cinema Guild), and a US theatrical release is planned for 2018.  Western is a strong film and should satisfy art house audiences.

The trailer below has no English subtitles.

The films of Taylor Sheridan

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

The actor Taylor Sheridan has written three recent films, and he has emerged as one of America’s most important filmmakers.  The three movies are Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River (which is his directorial debut – I’m not counting the low budget horror film Vile). I named Hell or High Water as the very best movie of 2016.

Here are some observations about Sheridan’s movies so far.

Western settings: This is the most obvious Sheridan signature: Sicario is set on the border between Mexico and Texas and New Mexico.  Hell or High Water is set in West Texas (but primarily shot in New Mexico).  Wind River is set in Wyoming.  Sheridan, very comfortable with wide open spaces, grew up on a ranch outside the hamlet of Cranfills Gap, Texas, between Fort Worth and Waco.  He isolates his characters in sparsely populated landscapes under Big Skies.  But he’s not sentimental – the Mexican border city in Sicario and the Indian Reservation in Wind River are horrible places.

Great dialogue:  From Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” to “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” to “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown,” great movies are known for iconic dialogue.  Sheridan is reviving that lost art.

From Hell or High Water:

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

And from Wind River:

Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

Resists the easy: Sicario revolves around a fish-out-of water female cop, but he doesn’t mate her her with one of the male stars.  In Hell or High Water, Toby insures the family’s security – but that isn’t enough for his ex-wife to take him back.  In Wind River, Cory and Jane meet cute (in a way) but don’t fall into bed; and Cory’s ex-wife doesn’t comfort him, either.

Not everything is going to be okay:  Sheridan knows how to craft a satisfying movie ending, but it’s not going to Happily Ever After for everyone.  In Hell or High Water, the action that brings peace to Chris Pine’s character brings eternal unease to Jef Bridges’.
Wind River’s reservation still devoid of hope.  Sicario’s border region is still poisioned by drugs and the drug war.

Populist politics:  Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable.  Sheridan explores this theme with the victims of the drug wars in Sicario, the flyover-state working class in Hell or High Water and the Native Americans on the reservation in Wind River.

It’s an impressive body of work from Sheridan.  I’m looking forward to his next screenplays, a follow-up to Sicario named Soldado and a TV drama titled Yellowstone.

Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO
Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO

WIND RIVER: another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016Wind River doesn’t disappoint.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation.  Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl.  To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds.  That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country.  She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country.  He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully.  There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action.  Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant.  Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy.  He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way.  Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny.  Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation.  She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory.   Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent.   Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests.  Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred  – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

      “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane.  This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily.  When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers.

DVD/Stream of the Week: DEAD MAN’S BURDEN – times are hard and the women are harder

DEAD MAN’S BURDEN

I always welcome a new Western, and writer-director Jared Moshe’s impressive debut Dead Man’s Burden takes us to a darkly realistic Old West. The dry New Mexico landscape is beautiful but unforgiving, and the law is three days ride away. The times are hard and the women are harder. The Civil War ended five years before, but families are still reeling from losing a generation of young men.

As the film opens, a man rides away on horseback. A petite woman, young but worn, hoists an 1853 Enfield rifle to her shoulder, takes aim and fires. We later learn the identity of the man, his relationship to the woman and her reason for firing. It’s not what you might guess. And the villain is not who you expect it to be.

Moshe’s story reveals some characters to be bound by duty and others to be opportunistic. They are caught in the same web of circumstance, which funnels inevitably them to conflict. The movie’s final two shots echo an earlier moment, and neatly (if grimly) wrap up the tale.

The cast – Barlow Jacobs, Clare Bowen (Scarlet in ABC’s Nashville), David Call and veteran Richard Riehle – is uniformly good. Jacobs (Kid in Shotgun Stories) is especially well suited for a Western hero, with expressive eyes that narrow like Eastwood’s or Van Cleef’s.

There’s a gunfight that is more historically typical than the usual cinematic facedown in the street. These men, hunters and former soldiers, chase each other through the brush, firing from cover. It ain’t heroic. And Dead Man’s Burden is remarkably unsentimental.

DEAD MAN’S BURDEN

Dead Man’s Burden was shot on 35mm by Robert Hauer, and the look of the film brings out the isolating vastness of the land. Sadly, the sound is substandard, and I had difficulty comprehending some of the dialogue.

Dead Man’s Burden is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: HELL OR HIGH WATER – you won’t see a better movie in 2016

Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER

For the second straight week, my DVD/Stream recommendation is the superb Hell or High Water.

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I have it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas). The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico). Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way. He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important. It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers. Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise. While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him. Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust. He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law. Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies, “It’s been difficult.” He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail. Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior. Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”. Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers. Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece. Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow. I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

Hell or High Water is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: HELL OR HIGH WATER – you won’t see a better movie in 2016

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I have it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas). The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico). Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way. He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important. It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers. Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise. While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him. Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust. He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law. Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies, “It’s been difficult.” He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail. Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior. Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”. Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers. Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece. Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow. I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

Hell or High Water is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE: a drifter with PTSD and his dog find Travolta in the Old West

valley-violence

Writer-director Ti West brings some new touches to the spaghetti western in his mostly successful In a Valley of Violence.  Ethan Hawke plays Paul the drifter, passing through town with his fly-catching dog Abbie.  He runs afoul of the local bully, which unleashes bloody (and, in one instance,  gruesome) revenge.

Right away, the music and the opening titles tell us that we’re watching a spaghetti western.  The dramatic rock formations and thirsty scrub of New Mexico work, too.  But this is a 21st Century take on the genre, with a protagonist suffering from PTSD.  Guilt-wracked, he becomes bent on revenge but remains ambivalent about the killing that his vengeance will require.  There’s also a bad guy with a conscience (but not enough of one).  And the superb final shootout is unlike any that you seen in another dusty street.

John Travolta is exceptional as the town marshal, burdened by wisdom enough to know that he is surrounded by idiots and perhaps to be entangled in their fates.  The marshal is well-seasoned and perceptive.  He reads every character with pinpoint accuracy.  He is one tough, crafty and ruthless hombre, but his actions are motivated by what must be done, not by empty machismo.

As befits a spaghetti western, the end of In a Valley of Violence (including the really violent parts) are filled with dark humor.   James Ransome is very funny as the compulsively foolish town bully, springing relentlessly from one bad choice to another.  One of the bad guys picks the most nail-biting moment to resist fat-shaming: “Don’t call me Tubby – my name is Lawrence”. The film’s highlight may be the LOL dialogue between Hawke and Travolta as they try to navigate not killing each other, all while stalking each other through the back streets.

Abbie the dog (played by Jumpy) is especially endearing and fun to watch.  She even rolls herself up in her blanket by the campfire.   In a Valley of Violence’s credits include the Dog Trainer, three Animal Wranglers and a Vulture Handler

In a Valley of Violence isn’t a perfect film.  The event that motivates the vengeful onslaught is predictable and upsetting to dog lovers.  And, other than Travolta and Hawke, the actors seem like they are modern folks dragged out of a Starbucks and dressed up in cowboy gear.

For what it’s worth, In a Valley of Violence’s climactic gunfight is historically consistent.  Contrary to the tradition in movie Westerns, very few of the Old West gunfights were of the “quick draw” variety.  The real cowboys, outlaws and lawmen tended to sneak up on each other and fire from cover.  When they did approach each other in the street (as here), their guns were usually already drawn.

I’ll watch ANY spaghetti western, but I found In a Valley of Violence to be a particularly successful one.  The dark humor and the performances by Hawke, Travolta and Jumpy are plenty reason to see In a Valley of Violence.

HELL OR HIGH WATER: best movie of the year so far

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I’ll be putting it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far.  As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view.  Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas).  The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico).    Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way.  He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important.  It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers.  Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise.   While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him.  Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust.  He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law.  Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies,  “It’s been difficult.”  He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail.  Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior.  Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”.  Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers.  Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece.  Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow.  I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT: talk talk bang bang

Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins in THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins in THE HATEFUL EIGHT

By now, everyone should understand what you’re going to get in a Quentin Tarantino movie:  1) lots of very harsh and extremely stylized movie violence; 2) lots of witty dialogue before and after the violence; and 3) references to other movies that Tarantino loves.  A classic example of Tarantino cinema, The Hateful Eight delivers on every count.

If you aren’t entertained by gratuitous violence, then don’t go to this movie.  The splatter quotient is high.

The Hateful Eight starts out like the great epic Westerns of the 50s and 60s, complete with dazzling vistas and a score by Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).  But soon we are inside a single room with a bunch of scoundrels (some more lovable than others) and entangled in a Spaghetti Western plot – constructed to set up the action set pieces.  And the violence is so over-the-top that much of it is both shocking and funny.

Those scoundrels are the spine of The Hateful Eight.  It’s always been easy to conclude that Samuel L. Jackson was put on this earth to deliver Tarantino dialogue.  Now it’s clear that Walton Goggins serves the same existential purpose.  Goggins shot to cult fame by playing the loquacious, crafty and manipulative hillbilly crimelord Boyd Crowder in TV’s Justified.  Goggins has the rare ability to project a complete absence of personal bravery, a quick-witted resourcefulness and be very, very funny while he’s doing it.  The very best aspect of The Hateful Eight is that it evolves into a Samuel L. Jackson/Walton Goggins buddy movie.

And then there’s Jennifer Jason Leigh, always one of our most interesting actresses.  In The Hateful Eight, she plays an extreme sociopath who can absorb an alarming amount of physical punishment.  Her character is a malevolent and seemingly irrepressible force of nature, and Leigh’s performance is another reason to see this movie.

Jennifer Jason Leigh in THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Jennifer Jason Leigh in THE HATEFUL EIGHT

 

I saw the regular 2 hours and 48 minute version of The Hateful Eight, projected on the digital system that most theaters now use.  There is also a “Roadshow” version , which was shot on and is projected from 70 mm film.  The Roadshow version also has a musical overture, an intermission and few minutes of extra action.  It all adds up to three hours and 6 minutes.  While this three hours and 6 minutes version is playing on 12 screens in the Bay Area, only two of them are the 70 mm projection.

I found the The Hateful Eight to be a hoot-and-a-half, but then I love Tarantino and have a high tolerance for movie violence.  The Wife stuck it out like a good sport (“Tell me again why I wanted to see this?), but then she’s a Walton Goggins fan from Justified.   If you liked Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, you’ll probably like this one, too.