‘High Water’ reminder of great crime stories

Hell or High Water

(Photo by CBS Films) Toby (Chris Pine, left) and Tanner (Ben Foster) get into the bank-robbing business in “Hell or High Water.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

The cinema has always been enthralled with crimes and those who commit them. Whether it is a mob boss who has minions to complete the violent work or a lone robber in a convenience store, tales have been told of those who violate laws and those who seek to stop them.
For me, one of the first of these I viewed as a child was “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was on television, so some of the violence was edited. However, I remember how exciting it was to watch them fleeing from one crime to another.. As an adult, my favorite scene is when Bonnie and Clyde talk to each other and ponder what they would have done differently.
“Hell or High Water” made me remember that classic from nearly 50 years ago. Instead of a group of bank robbers, “High Water” tells a fictional story of two brothers who begin robbing banks. They have an agenda and a plan, all of which becomes clearer as the plot develops.
The film has many interesting and quirky supporting characters. However, most of the action focuses on four main characters. There are the two brothers, portrayed perfectly by Ben Foster as Tanner Howard and Chris Pine as the younger brother, Toby. On the opposite side of the law, Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play the Texas Rangers assigned to stop the brothers from hitting more banks. These four portrayals are one of the strengths that make this such a fine film.
Beyond those actors’ work, there is a very smart screenplay. This story is interesting from start to finish. The action scenes are choreographed well. There are also moments that are quiet and moving. The best of these is the scene between Toby and his teenage son, played by John-Paul Howard.
There are also many moments of genuine humor in the dialogue and the actions of the characters. Some of the best laughs come during the bank robberies and from the aforementioned quirky supporting characters. Then there are the two Texas Rangers who always produce laughs as they debate almost everything. This well-written film has many strengths.
The greatest attribute of the film is the audience’s ability to empathize with all four of the lead characters, especially the criminals. Much like we root for Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Vito and Michael Corleone, the Howard brothers inspire us to care about them even though none of us would excuse their actions in the real world.
Some of that is the magic of film. And some of it happens when characters are finely developed. It is easy to care for them, in spite of their flaws. Then there is a common thread of humanity in all of us. A wise friend of mine pointed out years ago a truth of which I was aware, but had never pondered. “Every person living, no matter what they become, started out as someone’s newborn baby.”
Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have created a film that is well-crafted and offers a slice of humanity, good, bad, and mortal. It is the human part that keeps us engaged in the stories of the righteous and those who are less than pure.
I suppose in the end, I remember most the closing moments of the film. The final scene offers clear and perfect closure, or at least I think so.
The idea of making a sequel to this film would be a mistake. Everything has transpired to conclude the story. Every word has been spoken that needed to be said. It is complete.
“Hell or High Water” is one of the better films of this year.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

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Enjoy, don’t evaluate, ‘Breathe’

Don't Breathe

(Photo by Sony/Screen Gems) Alex (Dylan Minnette) and his friends get into more than they bargained when they try to break into a blind man’s home in “Don’t Breathe.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

“Don’t Breathe” is being billed as one of the most horrific films of the last two decades. It certainly is a film filled with thrills, chills and moments so intense, one almost hopes for an intermission, even though the film is only 88 minutes in length.
“Breathe” tells the story of three young adults, two young men and a woman, who make their money breaking into homes. One of the three lives with his father, who runs a home security business. Since the trio has access to his systems, at the beginning of the film, they are stealing from the dad’s clients.
The central character, the young woman, wants to leave Detroit and head to California with her much younger sister, who is not growing up in the best environment. The trio of robbers decide on their next mark, but before they attempt to rob him, they discover something unexpected. The man they are going to rob is blind.
The bulk of the film is what happens after the three young adults succeed in entering the blind man’s home.
“Don’t Breathe” works for many reasons. The four central cast members, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto as the robbers and Stephen Lang as the blind man, whose name is never known, are all well cast. This film could have been a mess with a lesser quartet.
The intensity is also a strength. The film hardly ever settles down to anything less than high tension. It seems at least 75 minutes of the film is one shock after another.
Then there is the fact the film is not in any way a supernatural story. This film creates thrills without ghosts, possessed persons or any of the other creatures that often thrill us in tales of horror.
There are the twists to the film. For the first third or so, one feels inclined to root for the blind man. He is simply living his life, harming no one. Even the characters seem reluctant to intrude his home after they find out about his disability. But as in many thriller films, there are twists, extraordinary ones, that make choosing a side more difficult.
Who is evil, even sadistic, and who is attempting to right certain wrongs? The surprises, the things one would have never guessed from the film’s trailer, increase the thrills and challenge the audience to rethink all that had gone on before.
All of these strengths, all the ways the film challenges one with shocks, scares, violence and twists make the experience worthwhile, if you like to spend almost 90 minutes being startled. “Don’t Breathe” continuously succeeds.
On the other hand, once you exit the theater, you may end up doing what I did. I began to ponder the reality of what I had just seen. There are any number of reasons where the logic of the film just does not work out. I even found myself retitling the film. Instead of “Don’t Breathe” perhaps the film should be “Don’t Think.” When I started thinking about all the events I had just witnessed, some simply did not work, not in a real world anyway.
However, I guess movies like “Don’t Breathe” are a lot like roller coasters. While you’re on a roller coaster, fear is present. Something could go wrong. I think that every time I ride a roller coaster. When I am not on the coaster, I realize they are built to be safe. Amusement parks make sure of that. So I get back on, for a quick scare.
“Don’t Breathe” seems less when you are not watching it, but during a viewing, it is quite a ride.

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.