Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge" and "Hell or High Water"

Working my way through more Best Picture Oscar nominees, I've decided to group together the two entries about men with guns shooting at each other. I liked both, but wouldn't count either among my favorites from last year.

"Hacksaw Ridge" tells the story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who enlists to fight in World War II with the intention of becoming a medic. When he refuses a firearm during training, under Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), multiple attempts are made to have Doss removed from the army. He's pressured to quit, refused leave to marry his sweetheart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), and finally arrested for insubordination. With the help of his father (Hugo Weaving), Doss is eventually vindicated and sent to the Pacific theater, where he takes part in the Battle of Okinawa.

"Hacksaw Ridge" is a very old-fashioned, straightforward tale of WWII heroism, without the complications of politics or cultural re-evaluation. The Japanese are by and large anonymous cannon fodder, and the Americans are occasionally loutish and bullying, but we root for them anyway. Doss's conscientious objector status is the main point of controversy, but this feels like less of a actual issue that the film wants to address than it is set-up for his eventual heroism in the back half of the film. So while the filmmaking is very strong, and I'm happy to see such good performances from Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, and Hugo Weaving, "Hacksaw Ridge" does nothing remotely interesting with its material. A few expletives aside, John Ford could have made this in the 1960s with Jimmy Stewart.

To its credit, this is a very well executed film. The battle scenes are convincingly brutal, and it's a very entertaining watch throughout. I also admire the frank discussions of Doss's faith and family history, even if they weren't handled as well as I thought that they could have been. It's really not until the film's epilogue, and the brief snippets of interviews with the real Desmond Doss, that it becomes clear how much of the film was true to life. Without it, "Hacksaw Ridge" comes off as a little too simplistic, when Steven Speilberg and Clint Eastwood are regularly delivering their patriotic pictures with a healthy dose of cynicism these days. As war films go, I find nothing objectionable about "Hacksaw Ridge," but nohing that particularly elevates it either. Hopefully the Mel GIbson comeback will yield better things in the future.

Now "Hell or High Water" is a more interesting piece of work, a modern day cops and robbers story about a pair of brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster), who are committing a series of bank robberies in Texas. Two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are hot on their trail, trying to work out their motivations and methods in order to anticipate the brothers' next targets. The narrative is about evenly split between the Howards and the Texas Rangers, and examines the relationships of both sets of men. The movie works nicely as a crime picture and neo-Western, with some thrillingly staged heist scenes and chases. There's also some pointed, but not too pointed social commentary as we learn how the depressed ecomonic state of this part of the country has fueled the actions of the Howard brothers.

Texas has never looked more barren, a dust-swept frontier where the rules of morality are starting to get shaky in the face of so much loss and ruin. All the major players have reason to start questioning the rules and their own codes of behavior. And as we observe and get to know them, they challenge easy descriptors and categorization. Toby is pegged early as the good brother, the more careful one who has stayed out of trouble, while wild-card Tanner has a record. Hamilton is casually racist and seems to come from the good ol' boy tradition, but it's soon clear why Parker good-naturedly puts up with him. The performances are a lot of fun, particularly Foster and Bridges,' and the script works in some great humor in unexpected places. The film is worth a watch for the Rangers' brief encounter with a very blunt waitress alone.

David Mackenzie is a Brit who has directed a lot of diverse, interesting titles like "Perfect Sense" and "Starred Up," and this is yet another film that doesn't look like anything else he's ever tried. And I'm so glad that he did, because his sensibilities are spot-on. Kudos should also go to Taylor Sheridan, who also scripted the recent "Sicario," for adding just the right amount of local color and thematic murk. I especially appreciate the epilogue for giving us closure without actually giving us any closure. This is a movie I just like more and more the more that I think about it.


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