David Mackenzie crafts his neo-Western Hell or High Water (A) with such methodical pace that he disguises how urgent a work it is for modern times. Yes, on the surface it’s a heist thriller about sworn “Comanches,” or enemies: a pair of bank robbers versus a duo of rangers facing off on stark Texas terrain. But a deeper viewing of the film finds a dramatic, elegiac tale about brothers surviving a cycle of poverty and abuse, about lawmen making a last stand to protect a land and a way of life and about a community coping in the shadow of institutional greed. There’s a sense everyone is playing their assigned role in a Western, down to the cowboys and Indians, but the pop psychology behind the characters is very much grounded in America after the devastation of recession, payday loans and foreclosures. Everyone is wounded in this unconventional oater that eschews constant shoot-em-up in lieu of rich character development. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are superb as the sibling protagonists, with Pine delivering the best work of his career to date as a man conflicted between duty to family and revenge against the bank that wrecked havoc on his homestead. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, playing a character of Native American and Hispanic descent, are also wonderful as the rangers. Bridges can add his colorful role to a series of late-career triumphs. It’s telling that the bank is ostensibly the real enemy in the film, but it is populated by low-level bureaucrats who seem unaware or indifferent to their effect on Main Street USA. Giles Nuttgens’ lived-in outdoor cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ plaintive score bring additional gravitas to the proceedings. There’s action too, but this movie is best in the quiet reflective moments that speak volumes about pockets of the country left behind in the march toward progress.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (B) blends western epic, revenge thriller and Christ allegory to often stunning effect on a blood-drenched American frontier. Leonardo DiCaprio gives new definition to suffering for one’s art as he undergoes a cavalcade of emotional and physical scars in an extremely gory story. In the grunts and groans of passages that feel like a silent movie with music, the expressive actor doesn’t miss a beat. He is a veritable force of nature, even if this isn’t the best use of his talents. Tom Hardy is very effective as the hero’s morally challenged foil. Iñárritu’s direction borders on overlong and overindulgent, but it’s hard to argue with all the lush camera work and scenery chewing when the stakes are this high. The spare dialogue serves to frame what is ultimately a man versus nature and man versus man battle. A little of this onerous oater goes a long way; and despite the palpable effects of all the violence and vistas, it doesn’t tread that much new ground.
Quentin Tarantino’s hybrid western mystery gangster epic The Hateful Eight (B+) has all the trappings of the writer/director’s best work from outstanding ensemble acting to wicked dialogue to twisty plot conventions to pulpy action and inventive use of music. To some extent, it’s at times a bit too much of a retread of his most common conventions. Filmed as a Cinerama presentation in classic 70mm Panavision with gorgeous Ennio Morricone overture and an intermission, the saturated colors of this post-Civil War tale come vividly to life. Unlike his experiments with grindhouse double features, this homage to cinematic history pays off. As long as it is, it’s a film that nonetheless will reward repeat viewings. The pre-intermission proceedings appear to be too preoccupied with exposition and campfire tales before Act Two truly delivers the mixtape of Agatha Christie style mystery and vicious bloodbath that fans of the auteur will crave. Kurt Russell is impressive as a villainous vermin channeling John Wayne on a bad day, and Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as a charismatic bounty hunter with a surprising past and nearly all the film’s most iconic lines. Walton Goggins is a revelation as the sheriff of Red Rock with unlikely cunning, and Jennifer Jason Leigh unfurls a crackerjack of a performance as a duplicitous prisoner. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Channing Tatum are all effective in their roles. The only weak link, possibly from misdirection, is Demián Bichir. Expect extreme language and violence and vintage Tarantino. It falls just short of some of his tighter and tidier work, but it’s more splendid fire in his canon.
Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino describe the “Roadshow” engagement and technology behind the film on TrailerAddict.
A spectacular fail on the great wide expanse of the American Wild West, writer/director Seth MacFarlane follows up his deliriously ribald Ted with the supremely unfunny frontier comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West (F). Casting himself in the lead role is honestly the first way MacFarlane demonstrates painful western death, with a cloyingly modern but childish sensibility and an utter lack of awareness inhibiting his protagonist’s basic story needs of winning the girl and defeating the villain. His character is largely a tool (pun intended) to observe how pointless living in the west was and to drone on and belabor this thesis with an escalating series of violent or puerile sight gags. Charlize Theron is the only cast member who leaves this blazing prattle unscathed. Lame jokes and dumb pratfalls abound while there are missed opportunities for real satire. MacFarlane as triple threat makes a terrible leading man, acting from a dopey script in an excessive and lugubriously paced summer tentpole comedy. Hopefully for Universal Studios, this vanity project required little more than letting an enfant terrible run amuck on a backlot and in the desert for a few weeks. These gunslingers needed more zingers to justify more than two hours of oppressive running time.
Not quite the great time robbery it is purported to be, Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (C-) is nonetheless an endless parade of tonal shifts and missed opportunities bookended by two of the most thrilling locomotive chases to be recently committed to screen. The biggest problem is a bland, underwritten and miscast hero, and Armie Hammer isn’t resourceful enough to imbue his character with any masked momentum. Johnny Depp is likable as Tonto, mixing warrior chic with emo sobbing, although his annual Chaplin meets Bugs Bunny blockbuster kitsch has run its course. High marks for production design, CGI-sparse old-fashioned stunts and potential integration into Disney theme parks’ Frontierland.