While most heist films tend to increase tension by involving several moving parts like in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels or by adding a new dimension like in Inception, Hell or High Water eschews these additional layers in favor of a stripped down look at a series of small-scale robberies. David Mackenzie (Starred Up) deftly executes on the familiar premise. Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine; Star Trek) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster; Warcraft), plan a series of bank robberies on a local chain to gather enough money to cover their late mother’s reverse mortgage. Jeff Bridges (True Grit) plays the almost retired Texas Ranger tasked with catching the two.
The morality of the crimes is deliberately kept ambiguous. The brothers stealing from a bank is clearly wrong, but the story takes place shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. Graffiti lines the walls of banks with phrases like “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”. The screenplay almost places as much blame on the insatiable greed of banks as it does on Toby and Tanner. Many of the citizens seem to share the same sentiment and feel little compassion for the robbed branches. Furthermore, Toby’s reasons behind the crimes, trying to preserve the family house so he can have something to pass down to his sons, is relatable and the film takes a sympathetic stance towards him. While not a political film by any means, placing equal emphasis on this populist stance allows the audience the make their own judgements on the actions of the characters.
Mackenzie is able to draw uniformly strong performances from his cast. Jeff Bridges is great as usual. His seen-it-all Ranger displays the logic of a seasoned professional and the sharp jabs at his longtime partner add light humor while establishing the depth of their bond. As he pursues the brothers, his commitment overwhelms him and Bridges is able to convey the subtle instability. Foster is cast as the reckless brother. He takes some stupid risks that could easily have made him irritating, but through the clear affection he has for his younger sibling, Foster is able to make the character acceptable. Even Chris Pine, a serial offender in wooden acting, is able to hold his own against Bridges. This is easily Pine’s finest role to date and it shows what he is capable of when working with a talented director and a character that aligns with his innate stoicism.
While the plot is simple and recognizable, the realization of the film sets it apart. The director wraps its story in the trappings of a western. The cinematography highlights the beautiful but harsh landscape of small town Texas. Like in a western, characters are slow talking and terse. Their subtle motions carry as much weight as the few words the say. The screenplay is without filler and Mackenzie’s solid staging turns small interactions into big moments. A distant cousin would be the movie Drive. Both films feature straightforward stories, but deliver by committing to their personal style. While this film can’t match Drive’s arthouse action, it is able to succeed in its own right. Hell or High Water is an effective crime drama boosted by laconic writing and strong direction.
The reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise was never as successful as its box office results would imply. The first film was a passable start but the second was mostly a retread with a blundering plot. Both film’s suffered from director J. J. Abrams’s (Lost) biggest flaws: overreliance on nostalgia and initially appealing but ultimately unsatisfying mysteries. After Star Trek Into Darkness recycled the plot of its predecessor, it had seemed that the writers were out of ideas, but the series returned this year with Star Trek Beyond. The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission to an uncharted nebula only to soon be destroyed a swarm of spacecraft controlled by an alien named Krall (Idris Elba; Prometheus) forcing them to abandon ship to the nearby planet. Split up, the crew has to find each other and stop Krall before he finds an ancient device on board that would allow him to use his swarm to attack bases and planets.
The films are increasingly feeling like extended $150 million dollar television episodes. That has both benefits and downsides. It frees the movies to be relatively independent of each other but has also leads to a significant amount of repetition. The sources of conflict are the same: Kirk doesn’t think he lives up to his father, Spock doesn’t know how to manage his duty to his people, and Uhura and Spock’s relationship is still “complicated” even though they break up at the start of the film. The plot is overly familiar and the relationships don’t show growth from the previous entries. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that the producers, and possibly the fans, value familiarity above all else.
The script tries to bring an even lighter tone to the series. Co-written by Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz), the screenplay incorporates jokes throughout the film. However, these attempts at humor are almost always the same jokes made in the previous films (Spock doesn’t understand emotions, etc.). Repeating the same punchlines means few of the setups actually produce any laughs. They aren’t helped by the acting either. Chris Pine as Kirk (Hell or High Water) continues his typical stiff performance, vainly attempting to show charisma and Bones (Karl Urban; Dredd) delivers all his lines as if starring in an early 1930s talkie, overacted with shtick to spare. Even the minor roles do not hold up with several actors using irritating speech choices. Anton Yelchin’s (Green Room) Russian accent as Chekov appears to have been based off a comedian’s standup routine and Pegg as Scotty sounds like he is auditioning for the part of Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. The weak script combined with worse acting thwart the desired humor.
With a different director at the helm, the film’s action has a new look. Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) has handled large scale action many times before and his experience shows off. Set pieces are more clearly composed and more playful than ever before. In particular, the film’s climax relies on a plot device that will annoy some, but for the rest leads to an uproarious and gleeful display of demolition. Even though the majority of the effects appear to be computer generated, Lin is able to keep them exciting with his quick pacing. Thanks to Lin’s efforts, Star Trek Beyond’s spirited action scenes outweigh the poor writing and wooden performances, producing an adequate entry in this middling franchise.