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.

Adapting Highsmith #2: The Glass Cell (Die gläserne Zelle, West Germany 1978)

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) at the railway station at the beginning of The Glass Cell

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) in a publicity shot taken at the railway station when Phillip returns from prison in The Glass Cell

My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller and, as with editor Peter Przygodda, this was his second Highsmith adaptation in a row, following Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the novel Ripley’s Game (1974). The Wenders connection is also carried through in the shape of director Hans W. Geissendörfer who was a founder member of the Filmverlag der Autoren which produced or distributed many of the films of the ‘New German Cinema’. The Glass Cell is a more ‘popular’/conventional film than most of the New German Cinema films, but it is still a film that deserves attention. The ‘production supervisor’ on the film was Bernd Eichinger, one of the most important figures in German cinema from the mid-1970s up until his death in 2011. The three leading players were all well-known in European cinema. Both Helmut Griem and Dieter Laser were leading German players with international production experience and Brigitte Fossey was borrowed from French cinema.

The film’s plot is familiar and very much what we might expect from Highsmith (it’s an adaptation of a 1964 Highsmith novel with the same title) – it even includes the train which brings Phillip Braun (Helmut Griem) back to Frankfurt after a five-year prison sentence for causing death and injury through shoddy work as an architect on a building project. Quickly explained in an expressionist flashback in the first few minutes of the film, this is quite difficult to grasp in terms of detail and I’m not sure that the subtitles explain enough about the legal questions. Phillip is still convinced that he was set up by Lasky (Walter Kohut) the crooked accountant/speculator on the building project. Somehow, a large sum of money is missing and the assumption is that Phillip has taken it and used cheap and unsafe substitute materials. During his nearly five years ‘inside’ Phillip has suffered mentally and also seems to have lost something of his status as husband and father with his wife Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and his son Timmie, both of whom seeming to have fallen for the slick lawyer David Reinalt (Dieter Laser) –  who was supposedly Phillip’s top legal counsel in his defence. Reinalt still maintains that Lasky is behind all Phillip’s problems. He tries to help Phillip find a job, but also seems to be overly supportive of Lisa and Timmie.

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn't add up

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn’t add up

As in Deep Water, Highsmith’s story is about a faltering marriage in which the husband is prompted to take drastic action. In this case, however, there is a more acute police presence placing the criminals in jeopardy. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure, but I found the resolution of the narrative curiously satisfying. There are several recurring Highsmith tropes and direct similarities with Deep Water. Once again there is a bright child of the marriage – Timmie plays the flute and he gives a performance attended by his parents. There is a party where Phillip loses control. As in Der Amerikanische Freund, one of the marriage partners is engaged in art work. Lisa decorates pots and she works in a bookshop. There is mileage in the possibility of an expressive mise en scène based around artworks but because of the murky print it was difficult to see much detail. The whole film is dark and brooding (underlined by the soundtrack early on) but whether deliberate or a function of the degraded image, I can’t be sure. The main action is set in mid-winter so the darkness is realistic. In his notes on the touring season’s website, Pasquale Iannone praises Müller’s streetscapes and there is indeed a deep sense of gloom and despair in Helmut Griem’s walks through the city. As Iannone also points out, the adaptation changes the novel by focusing much more on the ‘post prison’ events, but heightens our understanding of Phillip’s internal anguish by having the letters to him in prison from Lisa read out on the soundtrack. The violent action in the narrative is well-handled and one scene in particular in a raucous beer hall is very effective. Other scenes in apartment blocks feel Hitchcockian in chance encounters with potential witnesses – a nice bit of play with a dog in a lift.

I enjoyed the film despite the image quality and, as in Deep Water, the real pleasure came from the performances and the direction. Helmut Griem as the central character is excellent with a look of utter calm that suggests both coldness and possibility of despair. Brigitte Fossey is equally compelling. I’m definitely going to try to see more of the films in this season. The Glass Cell was a West German entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 1979 Academy Awards. There are four more films in the season coming to HOME and also more screenings at the Hyde Park in Leeds, Showroom, Sheffield and Rio, Dalston and other venues. Please support this excellent season.

Sid and Nancy (UK 1986)

sidnancy

This film has been re-released on a reasonably good digital transfer for its 30th anniversary. The writer (with Abbe Woole) and director Alex Cox commented in a S&S interview:

“All that explains a sort of misunderstanding in the UK, where it was taken to be a film about the punk scene. The reception in America (USA), where it was viewed as a horrific love story, was closer to our intentions.” (August 2016 issue).

Cox also makes the point that to see films about punk watch those of Julien Temple: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) covers some of the ground found in this film.

However, the punk scene of the late 1970s is an essential setting to this unconventional romance. The movement was raw, often simplistic, but avowedly rebellious and an example of the glorious bad taste representative of the 1970s: think Ken Russell and his best films.

In this world of style, music and gratuitous misbehaviour, often both sadistic and masochistic, bloomed the self-destructive relationship between Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). One of the aspects that really makes the film worth watching are the performances by the lead couple, especially Oldman. And there are some key supporting characterisations, like David Hayman as Malcolm McLaren.

Moreover, whilst the film captures the key settings and quite a few of the key moments with convincing naturalism, this is essentially not a realist portrait. So some of the best moments are dream-like, almost surrealist. There is a great sequence in Paris where Sid imagines a performance on a giant staircase. And there are several New York sequences where alternative moments provide a strongly reflexive commentary.

Much of the film was filmed in actual locations. So one can happily recognise places in London, Paris and New York. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins in one of his early features, is excellent. There are shots of the New York skyline which are ethereal. And there is a magnificent road sequence, set in Georgia though shot in California, of the Sex Pistols’ convoy, escorted by bikers with a helicopter bussing overhead like a busy bee. And the music score, including some classic numbers, is great.

The rest of the production support this. it is a treat to watch though also at time disturbing. So this re-release has an 18 certificate. But at other points it is funny and then tragic. Cox seems vaguely dissatisfied with the film in his interview: but I think it is the most interesting film he has made. Oddly the prime focus in S&S is US punk, even though the British scene came first. It would have been good for a commentary on the Temple film.  Julien Temple also directed Vigo: A Passion for Life (1988). I could see why someone with a punk sensibility would rate this earlier filmmaker. There are faint but intriguing parallels.

Julieta (Spain 2016)

TheSpanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A Spanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is an occasion for joy in my book and I found Julieta to be utterly absorbing and thrilling. ‘Un film de Almodóvar’ is like a gourmet meal – every ingredient is rich in meaning and exquisitely presented. Gourmet meals are sometimes more about style than nourishment, but not with Almodóvar. I find his films as sustaining as the best peasant food. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Julieta has received some lukewarm reviews alongside the majority of favourable ones, mainly I think from writers who don’t know the range of his work – or possibly from younger reviewers who don’t fully appreciate what it means to look back? I was going to write a full-blown defence of the film, but I discovered that Mark Kermode, in one of his most perceptive and informed reviews, has already done it. So I’m not going to repeat all his points – you can find Kermode’s review here. Instead I’ll expand on some of the aspects that interest me most.

Julieta is Almodóvar’s third ‘literary adaptation’, following Live Flesh (1997, based on a Ruth Rendell novel of the same title) and The Skin I Live In (2011, based on Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet). This time Almodóvar has turned to Runaway (2004), a collection of short stories by the celebrated Canadian short story specialist Alice Munro. Three stories, ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, are about the same character at different stages of her life. I read these after seeing Julieta and then found Almodóvar’s explanation of what he did. There are useful pieces in both the Guardian/Observer (interview by Jonathan Romney) and Sight and Sound (September 2016 – article by Maria Delgado, review by Jonathan Romney). In the UK Julieta is distributed by Pathé which offers little documentation in support of the film but in Canada the distributor Mongrel Media offers a Press Pack in which Almodóvar provides a delightful set of notes which are almost as entertaining as the film and I recommend them to you.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Julieta is a story about a young woman from Madrid who falls passionately in love with Xoan, a married man in Galicia, and who later marries him in difficult circumstances that to some extent mirror what has happened to her own parents back in Andalucía. She is then dismayed to find her relationship with her daughter from the marriage breaking down and bringing the past back to her as she tries to live a new life in Madrid.

julieta13

Adriana Ugarte with Pedro Almodóvar and Daniel Grao (Xoan) in the confines of a 1980s dining car

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a poster for a Lucien Fred exhibition

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a Lucian Freud portrait

Pedro tells us that he’d acquired the rights and started adapting the stories before making his earlier film The Skin I Live In and that Munro’s book actually appears as a prop in that film. He’d already switched the location from British Columbia and Ontario to New York before deciding that he wasn’t confident enough in English and transposed the action again to Madrid, Galicia and Andalucía. He suggests that in North America, the physical separation of parents and grown-up children is common but in Spain it is exceptional – “the umbilical cord joining us to our parents and grandparents survives the passing of time”. He says that the original stories are still Munro’s but that he’s had to change them for cinema and he hopes that Julieta will be seen by Munro’s admirers as “a tribute to the Canadian writer”. In fact, he hasn’t changed that much. The main thing he has done is to find a way to ‘stitch’ the three separate episodes together so that one coherent narrative can be manipulated on the cinema screen with flashbacks and the use of two actors to play Julieta at different times of her life. The transformation shot when the younger Adriana Ugarte becomes the older Emma Suárez is quite remarkable. (Both actors are very good, Agarte is well known from Spanish TV and it’s a welcome return for UK audiences to see Suárez who starred in the early films of Julio Medem in the 1990s.) Almodóvar is not the first director to adapt Munro and one of my favourite films is Away From Her (Canada 2006) directed by Sarah Polley. As a young and inexperienced director she didn’t have the weight of Almodóvar’s experience in 2006 but she does have a woman’s perspective – and an affinity with Canadian life. When I first remembered the connection I thought that the two films were very different but on reflection they are both recognisably Munro’s narratives, so Almodóvar has been ‘faithful’ to the author in one sense.

In the Press Notes Pedro makes several claims and assertions that I take with a pinch of salt:

“I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humour, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left. Someone with whom you’ve lived for a lifetime disappears from your life without a word. You can’t understand it. It happens, it’s in our nature, but it’s incomprehensible and unacceptable. Not to mention the pain it causes.”

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

I would argue that it is a melodrama, that the visual compositions are, as usual, extraordinary and that the film refers back to various periods of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, as well as clear references. It is this which makes the film ‘un film de Almodóvar’ as well as a wonderful adaptation of a great writer’s work. Elsewhere, Pedro remarks that Ava, the woman Julieta meets in Galicia and who may be her husband’s on/off mistress is perhaps named after Ava Gardner. At the house in Galicia which will become Julieta’s home she must grapple with the housekeeper Marian, played by Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s ‘go to’ character actors, here playing Mrs Danvers to Julieta’s Rebecca from Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Later on a character will tell us that he feels like a character from a Patricia Highsmith story. The earliest part of the story is set in 1985 and Pedro tells us that he had to explain to Adrianna Ugarte how a young woman from Madrid on a train (Hitchcock/Highsmith again – but also in the Munro story) might behave in the sexually liberated ‘Movida‘ period when the first outrageous Almodóvar films appeared. The Press Notes finish with these lines:

“Almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen. Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story. I’d like to persuade my brother (the producer) to offer a free second viewing to people who have already seen the film.”

 Julieta is a work of genius in which the adaptation becomes a personal exploration of grief, loss, passion and memory. I know some audiences drifted away from Almodóvar, disappointed by I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) (but not me). Julieta should bring them back – after 10 days, it had made over £820,00 in UK cinemas – on the way to perhaps making £1 million and emphasising Almodóvar’s status as the most consistent foreign language director distributed in the UK.