Category: the Western

Hell or High Water (US 2016)

Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as the brothers Howard

Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as the brothers Howard

Hell or High Water is one of the most hyped films of the year with five star reviews coming from several directions. Fortunately it is very good, though it may not be to everyone’s taste. Any film that includes Townes Van Zandt on the soundtrack at the end of the opening credits is alright with me, so this may not be an entirely objective analysis of what is on offer. For most film fans the twin attractions of the film are likely to be that a) it is the second screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario the highly-rated film directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2015 and b) it features one of Jeff Bridges’ many film-stealing performances. Cinephiles may note that Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, the second Scot to make a Western in recent years after Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014) and a well-regarded filmmaker with many different kinds of films in his back catalogue. But is the film a Western? I’ll come back to its classification in a moment, first a brief plot outline (no spoilers).

The action takes place in West Central Texas, though the film was shot entirely in New Mexico. In fact the fictional space is perhaps better described as ‘Comancheria‘ (the working title of the film), the area dominated in the mid 19th century by the Comanche people that runs across the modern state lines of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – an important geographical factor in the film’s narrative. Two brothers set out on a carefully-designed campaign to rob small banks belonging to the same Texas banking company. They plan to steal only small bills and to launder the money quickly before using the new stash to pay off a large debt the family owes to the same bank. They have to get the money “by Hell or High Water” to meet a strict deadline within the next few days. One of the brothers (Tanner, played by Ben Foster) is a wild professional criminal, having already served time for bank robberies. The other brother (Toby, Chris Pine) is ‘clean’ and he is the one with the brains and the cunning plan. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement. He’s been waiting for an interesting ‘last case’ and he’s the only one who seems to understand what the brothers are up to. He has a sceptical partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – a Comanche/Mexican man who must put up with Marcus and his good-natured racist banter. So, two pairs of seemingly mismatched men in a contest. It’s a neat genre proposal.

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers

For me this is a ‘modern Western’ and even possibly a ‘Twilight Western’, one of my favourite genres.The classic description of the twilight Western is that it tells a story about the ‘end of the West’, often featuring two men – one who is wedded to the cowboy code of honour and one who is prepared to change and move on. The ‘Dean’ of the genre in literary terms is Larry McMurtry, responsible for the novels that became the films Hud (1963) and The Last Picture Show (1971), both Twilight Westerns. The latter film starred Jeff Bridges and Timothy Buttons as two young characters in early 1950s Archer City – a small town in West Central Texas which in Hell or High Water is the site of the first bank robbery. It’s amazing (and slightly worrying) to see Jeff Bridges growing old from the fresh-faced kid in The Last Picture Show through countless Western-related roles (one of the most entertaining being the comedy Hearts of the West (1975)) to the aged Marcus. I think he plays older than he actually is in this new role. I guess he has now taken over the roles played by actors like Ben Johnson (who was the father figure to the two boys in The Last Picture Show). It’s clear in this new film that a way of life is dying – and that what’s replacing it does not necessarily signal ‘progress’. Marcus and Toby Howard are on opposite sides but they have something in common. One aspect of ‘progress’ seems to be that nearly every citizen in Texas carries a powerful handgun – which makes bank robbery a dangerous game. Is this a sly commentary on America’s (lack of) gun laws?

But this new film also embraces two other repertoires. One refers to what some critics have called ‘neo-noir’. In a visual sense there is nothing noirish about Hell or High Water, but it does draw on some of the same elements as crime films set in the South-West and based on ‘hardboiled’ pulp novels. Good examples would be Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), both based on Jim Thompson novels and Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot (1990) based on a Charles Williams novel. These all have the small town Texas locations and the violent action, but they also have a significant focus on female characters that perhaps isn’t present in Hell or High Water. Finally, there is a repertoire that goes back to the 1930s and ‘rural crime pictures’ that might be summed up by bringing together Woody Guthrie’s song ‘Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw’ and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The connection is the practices of banks to, in effect, ‘steal’ the land belonging to poor farmers during hard times when they can’t repay loans. Everyone knows this and therefore potential witnesses are not particularly helpful to law enforcement officers. My favourite scene in Hell or High Water is when the two Texas Rangers try to question the occupants of a diner where the brothers were eating before a robbery. Paul Howard Smith, simply listed as ‘Old Timer’ in the credits, is entirely convincing in response to the Rangers’ questions (see him in the trailer below). A semblance of empathy for the robbers is also evident in Alberto’s comment that “all this was my ancestor’s land before these folk took it and now it’s being taken from them – by these sons of bitches” (nodding towards the bank branch he’s watching). He understands what the robbers feel in ‘taking back’ what has been taken from them.

The performances in the film are all very good and it looks great thanks to British cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who has worked with Mackenzie before and has many credits on both independent and Hollywood films). The soundtrack lists ‘original music’ by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I presume that they selected the other songs as well. I particularly enjoyed the Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch contributions as well as Townes. I’ve also discovered Chris Stapleton because of the film, but I don’t remember hearing the version of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ played on the trailer below. (I would have noticed it – it appears, sung by Bob Dylan in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973 as Slim Pickens is dying.) Some music fans would call some of these tracks ‘outlaw country’.

Hell or High Water is the kind of film that makes you think of so many other films and reminds you why you enjoy certain kinds of genre pictures. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m not giving much away in saying that the sight of police cars careering along dusty roads in pursuit of ‘outlaws’ is something that actually belongs in several different genre repertoires from Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) to Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (1974). We know what’s going to happen but it is still thrilling.

The Hateful Eight 70mm Road Show

the-hateful-eight

I saw this, not in Edinburgh or London, but in Barnsley at the Parkway Cinema. This is one of four Parkway Cinemas and it is sited right in the middle of town just opposite the Travel Hub. You can get there from Leeds in about 45 minutes [sometimes longer] by road and around the same amount of time by train and bus. The cinema was originally an Odeon outlet, and the interior architecture is recognisable. Now there are two screens. Screen 1 is the converted balcony. Screen 2 is the original auditorium and seats about 400. It is fairly spacious with comfortable seats and plenty of room.

The management, clearly possessing get up and go, arranged a booking with the Entertainment Distributors for the film and set about converting for 70mm. They even adjusted the masking to accommodate the 2.76:1 ratio of Ultra Panavision 70. In fact we had a short introduction before the feature explaining the conversion, lots of hard work. We also had a digital copy of an old Cinerama Trailer: nearly the same aspect ratio.

The 70mm print was in good condition with only a few scratches. It looked fabulous, especially the exterior shots. This really is the top end of cinema viewing with the highest resolution you can enjoy.

This is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature and it is the best since Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) or even Jackie Brown (1997). It is typical in many ways of Tarantino’s work. So it has a host of references to earlier westerns, but at the same time there is an overlap with Reservoir Dogs (1992). This is both in terms of some of the casting but also of the plot. There are secrets and revelations and characters soon turn out to be rather different from how they appear. There is an amount of blood and gore, but mainly in the second part.

Tarantino and his team have produced a good facsimile of the classic Road Show presentations. There is an overture, and intermission and something like 20 more minutes of film that in the digital release. The first part sets up the characters and stories and runs just on a hundred minutes. The twelve minute intermission is followed by the final eighty minutes. Here there is not only more gore, but more action and some tricky plotting. It might seem a little convoluted, though less so than the review of the film in Sight & Sound.

The greatest pleasure in the film is the cinematography by Robert Richardson: think of The Aviator (2004). From comments I had supposed that the film was predominately interiors. However, there are frequent and beautifully composed landscapes. The snowy setting rivals The Revenant (2015). One has to think back five decades for earlier Ultra 70mm features: say The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Khartoum (1966). It is a great format. Besides the quality of the image there is the width of the perspective. The opening shots as a coach ploughs through snow by a weather worn Crucifix looks great. But equally, interiors and close-ups, including one of Jennifer Jason Leigh, are terrific. At times it was a pleasure  just watching the folds and hues of faces: the props and furnishings of the sets: and the wintry scapes.

The casting is good. I especially enjoyed Samuel Jackson’s ex-Major. The film is tricky with characters, as the plot progresses one has to revise one’s ideas of who are the key characters of the title. The whole production design and supporting crafts are excellent. And there is also the pleasures of a Morricone score: at times very familiar but also for certain sequences quite distinctive.

The film has been criticised for not being epic, and so not justifying the length or the format. I think this is a misnomer. It does not offer the gravitas of The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it has more character and more complexity than Khartoum. Black people and women do come off rather badly, especially on the receiving end of violence. But this is partly the period in which the story is set. I did think that the liberal use of ‘nigger’, [as in Django Unchained, 2012] was partly down to Tarantino’s delight in teasing/provoking the audience.

Anyway it is some time since I spent three hours in the cinema with so much pleasure. The good news is that The Parkway is providing additional screenings: on Sunday evening April 17th; then on Monday and Thursday evening and Wednesday afternoon. Worth the trip. Apparently they have had film buffs from as far afield as Bournemouth.

The Revenant (US/Canada 2015)

One of Emmanuel Luzbezki's 'atmospheric' compositions

One of Emmanuel Lubezki’s ‘atmospheric’ compositions in THE REVENANT

The Revenant is a $135 million film that runs for 156 minutes, has taken box offices worldwide by storm and gathered armfuls of awards nominations. In virtually every sense it is a ‘big picture’ that can’t fail to impress the viewer. But I wonder what it all adds up to? I found the film to be visually stunning and I recognise the extraordinary lengths to which the cast and crew must have gone in the most difficult filming conditions. It’s a film to watch and think, yes it’s all on the screen and it’s a great technical achievement. Unfortunately though, as a film narrative it seems to me to fall short.

I should confess that I’m not familiar with the films of Alejandro González Iñárittu. The subjects of his previous films haven’t attracted me apart from Biutiful (Mexico/Spain 2010) which I hope to see at some point. I’m not, therefore, interested in any kind of auteurist study. I came to The Revenant because I thought it must be a Western and I read the film in that context. My interest in the Western is in terms of both its relationship with American history and its universal themes which have been taken up by filmmakers around the world. In my conception there is a narrow definition of the Western repertoire that locates narratives in the uncharted territory of the western United States between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the ‘closing of the frontier’ in the late 1890s. A much broader definition of the Western covers the whole period of ‘American’ history from the first contacts between settlers and indigenous peoples right up to the present day and ranges north into Canada and south into Mexico. Contemporary Westerns do, however, have some kind of geographical and/or cultural connection to the 19th century ‘frontier’. Within these broad definitions, various sub-genres or fluid repertoires can be discerned. The Revenant is a ‘survivalist Western’ – man versus the natural environment – and a ‘frontier Western’ focusing on the upper Missouri River in the 1820s when the huge territories of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) were still being ‘absorbed’ by the US. The new territories represented a third of the total land area of the US in the 19th century and the two big issues were the resistance of the various indigenous groups and the commercial interests of British and French trappers and fur traders. The story of The Revenant is based on what happened to a real character, Hugh Glass in 1823. This was in turn used for a fictionalised account by Michael Punke published in 2002 and it was this that prompted the adaptation by Iñárittu and Mark L. Smith.

A fundamental aspect of Iñárittu’s approach appears to be to ‘tell’ his audience as little as possible. We aren’t told the date of the story nor where it takes place. Instead we are required to think through what we see. We note first that the ‘Americans’ have flintlock muskets and pistols – placing the story earlier than the 1840s. The names of some of the Native American peoples are mentioned fairly early – as is the presence of French fur traders. The Americans are slaughtering animals for pelts and they have to get them back to a fort. The leader of the group is a quasi-military figure. Is he employed by one of the trading companies? Later we will hear mention of the Missouri but at first we have no real idea where we are. (The film was mostly shot in Canada, but some scenes were shot in Argentina when the snows left the Canadian mountains.) Does it matter where and when the action takes place? Possibly not, but Iñárittu goes to such lengths to ensure ‘authenticity’ that there seems to be a contradiction here. It would have been simple enough to include a title saying simply “Upper Missouri River: 1823” and perhaps “American and French fur traders compete for pelts” or something like that. On the other hand, with no context, the film narrative could have been solely about survival.

Glass remembers his wife who he lost in a raid on their village by US soldiers.

Glass remembers his wife who he lost in a raid on their village by US soldiers.

As it is, the story becomes incomprehensible. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) survives through miraculous escapes, severely wounded but able to withstand immersion in freezing waters. He leaps over cliffs etc. and is able to jump onto a horse despite being barely able to walk and to fire his flintlock pistol twice in quick succession with remarkable accuracy (and no reloading). None of this would matter in a Western ‘adventure’, but cumulatively such feats undermine the seriousness of the existential struggle for survival. If it is going to be a ‘man against the wilderness’ narrative, we need something else – a sense of what Glass is feeling and thinking. I’m not sure we get this – instead we are asked to focus on the idea of revenge. Glass is motivated by what one man in particular (the Tom Hardy character) did in leaving him to die (and much more). This is the plot line that prompts the film’s title. Glass is not just the man who ‘comes back’ in the literal meaning of the title, but also the mythical avenger who returns from the dead (also an established meaning of ‘revenant’). There are in fact a couple of fantasy sequences when Glass dreams about his Pawnee wife but otherwise the potential of ‘revenant’ in its more mythological sense is not exploited. Caught between survivalist and revenge narratives, I felt that the film was incoherent and the final section of the revenge narrative was tedious. This is a very violent film and by the end of 150 minutes I’d already had too much. The ending does, however, have one saving grace in  the re-appearance of a group of Arikara ‘Indians’. For me, the various indigenous groups and individuals represented in the film are its major bonus and I was struck by what one unnamed reviewer suggested was a nod to John Ford’s The Searchers, reversing the structure of that film’s search with a tribal chief leading a group of braves on a mission to find his daughter who has been abducted by French trappers.

Glass with his amazing flintlock pistol Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture Copyright © 2015 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved.Not for sale or duplication.

Glass with his amazing flintlock pistol
Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Despite all the potential, The Revenant fails as a Western narrative. I recently watched a TV showing of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the Sidney Pollack-Robert Redford ‘survivalist Western’ which is equally ‘epic’ in its vision but more coherent in execution. I’m also intrigued to have been reminded of the Richard C. Sarifian version of the Glass story, Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris. Harris had already appeared in A Man Called Horse (1970), a film in which an Englishman is captured by the Sioux and becomes a warrior and leader. With two remakes for this film, the early 1970s saw a cycle of films with similar elements to The Revenant. Iñárittu tried to place Glass’s story in a wider context with the ‘opening up’ of the frontier to trapping and trading. I did at some point think of films as different as McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate – films about the much later influence of American capitalism. Again, there was a film to be made about the early period of capitalism on the frontier (and racist exploitation) but The Revenant can’t fully accommodate it.

I mustn’t give the impression that I disliked the film completely. Most of the time I was engaged by the story, even when I wanted to critique it, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. The opening action sequence matches his celebrated sequences from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and his mountain vistas and long shot compositions are indeed ‘breathtaking’. I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate the music score written and arranged by Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto, but I was impressed by the range of pieces selected. I must also say something about the performances. I’ve never been a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and I don’t really understand his appeal. Here he is asked to do a great deal without dialogue and to express himself from inside a mountain of skins and coats and a large beard. By all accounts it was a tough shoot and he put himself through it to perform the role, but is that enough to win all those awards? Tom Hardy (who does seem very versatile as an actor) is as effective as DiCaprio but I was equally impressed by Domhnall Gleeson who has been excellent in films as different as Ex Machina and Brooklyn in 2015 and manages here to be convincing as the trappers’ leader.

Alejandro González Iñárittu’s early films used scripts written by Guillermo Arriaga who in 2005 wrote one of the best contemporary Westerns – The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Perhaps with Arriaga and Jones he could have made a great Western from The Revenant?

Aferim! (Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France 2015)

Still of Toma Cuzin, Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu in Aferim! (2015), © Big World Pictures (from IMDB.com)

Still of Toma Cuzin, Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu in Aferim! (2015), © Big World Pictures (from IMDB.com)

The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as

“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “

I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.

Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.

The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.

As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.

The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.