Blade Runner 2049 is as Good as Belated Sequels Get

Confession time: the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, I didn’t much care for it. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

This could be because I saw it on TV and it was probably edited to some extent. This could also be because the version I saw was the original theatrical version, which most fans of the film agree to be inferior to later versions. But I think the most likely reason of all was that it did not conform to my expectations. I expected a rollicking, action-packed thrill ride. What I got instead was a dark, moody, slow-burning sci-fi noir. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Scott’s Blade Runner is a stone-cold classic and has been hugely influential on generations of filmmakers and writers.

The idea of a sequel coming out some 35 years after the release of the original film could lead to understandable skepticism. We all know what happened with that last Indiana Jones movie, after all. But I am happy to say that the new film, Blade Runner 2049, is an excellent sequel. People have called it one of the best sequels ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.

Image: Warner Bros.

The new movie was directed by the brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I haven’t seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival) were all excellent. Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today, and he has delivered another near-masterpiece with Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve’s film stays true to Scott’s beloved original in tone, style, and content. The cinematographer was the great Roger Deakins, and the movie looks amazing. It brilliantly recaptures the iconic look of the original movie while also providing new environments and landscapes that fit right in with the world these films have created. If Deakins doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, then the Academy Awards are officially Dead To Me.


Image: Warner Bros.

But aside from the eye-popping visuals, the film is rich in ideas and emotion. One of the main questions the original film presented was: what does it mean to be human? If it becomes possible to one day create synthetic beings so lifelike they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people, who’s to say those synthetic beings aren’t human? HBO’s Westworld recently pondered similar questions, and they’re as relevant and intriguing now as they were when the first movie was released in 1982.

Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to the world he helped create, although (this could be considered a minor spoiler) he doesn’t actually appear in the new movie until it is more than half over. Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling, and he is more than up to the task of carrying the film. Gosling’s performance here is superb and absolutely Oscar-worthy.


Image: Warner Bros.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap. The original movie took place in 2019, and followed Ford’s character Rick Deckard as he attempted to track down four rogue replicants. Replicants were created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve as off-world slave labor, but after a series of violent rebellions, they became outlawed. Blade Runners such as Deckard were cops who specialized in tracking down and “retiring” replicants.

Gosling’s character, known simply as K for most of the movie, is a Blade Runner hunting down replicants in 2049, thirty years after the events of the original film. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, since I really want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that K’s background is complex and is an integral part of the film’s plot. It becomes necessary for him to track down Deckard, who hasn’t been seen for thirty years. When we do finally meet Deckard, he’s tired and worn out. It’s some of the best acting Ford has done in recent years. He does a great job capturing Deckard’s cynicism and world-weariness, and is soulful and sympathetic.


Image: Warner Bros.

In addition to Deckard and K, the rest of the characters are equally fascinating. Robin Wright plays K’s no-bullshit boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto plays a creepy evil industrialist named Niander Wallace (who now owns the company that makes replicants and has made a fortune producing a new, more obedient series of replicants), and an actress named Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace’s main henchwoman, disarmingly named Luv. Despite her name, she is not to be messed with, and provides a fierce adversary for K as he attempts to locate Deckard.

There’s also the lovely Cuban actress Ana de Armas as a character named Joi (pronounced like the word joy), who is, for lack of a better word, K’s companion. No, not that kind of companion. She offers him support and guidance despite, let’s just say, not being entirely human. I found the relationship between K and Joi to be quite fascinating, and genuinely moving at times.

There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but I’m not going to because this is a movie you should experience for yourself. I will say that I loved the film’s plot. The filmmakers did an incredible job of telling a story that feels like a logical evolution of the original film, instead of just a flimsy excuse to make another movie and make more money. Blade Runner 2049 is a movie made with immense care and attention to detail. It feels completely faithful to the original.

I wouldn’t call either Blade Runner movie an action movie. Both movies are deliberately paced, and while there are fights and chases, the emphasis isn’t on the action scenes. Both films have a long way to go and are in no particular hurry to get there. The new movie is nearly three hours long, but it didn’t feel that long to me. It immediately sweeps the viewer up into the vivid world it creates, and it’s the kind of world that is thrilling to explore, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in it.

Every aspect of this movie is Oscar-worthy, from the production design to the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects to the cinematography. Every one of those things from the first movie became iconic, and it’s easy to see the same thing happening with the new movie. Denis Villeneuve and his team did an incredible job crafting this film, and they have made Blade Runner 2049 every bit as emotionally resonant and thematically rich as its esteemed predecessor, which is no small feat.

Coming up next, in The Foreigner Jackie Chan will show us that it doesn’t matter if you’re in your sixties, you can still kick ass.

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Operation Anthropoid

It is with a heavy heart that I begin to write today. Last week I decided to write about a movie called Anthropoid, which is a dramatization of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which took place in 1942. It’s a movie with a lot of gun violence, and after what happened in Las Vegas after the weekend I wondered if it was the right movie to write about. I’m going to go through with it, but this week in addition to the standard spoiler warning I’m just going to say that this post will be getting into some pretty dark stuff, so if you don’t want to read about a film in which many people are killed with guns only a few days after dozens of Americans were actually killed with guns, I completely understand.

That being said, let’s get to the movie. Anthropoid is a movie which was released last year, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, and was written, produced, and directed by Sean Ellis (he was also the cinematographer). Ellis is an English filmmaker with only a handful of directing credits, but Anthropoid is one of the best-directed films I’ve seen in quite some time. It flew under the radar last year, but it’s a great movie and deserves to be more widely known.


Image: Universal

Reinhard Heydrich was an evil man. He was one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart” and the people of Czechoslovakia nicknamed him the Butcher of Prague. I’m not going to say much more about him because I am not a historian and because writing about such a monstrous person is depressing. Suffice to say that if one were to compile a list of the most evil humans to ever exist, Heydrich would more than earn his place.

As I talk about the film, I’m going to be talking about historical events as the film depicts them, and I’m sure the movie takes some liberties with the actual events (as all movies based on true events inevitably do). Just letting all the historians out there know that in advance.

The movie’s main characters are Josef Gabcik, played by Murphy, and Jan Kubis, played by Dornan. Both Gabcik and Kubis were real people, and the performances by Murphy and Dornan are excellent. Murphy is a talented and versatile actor, while Dornan is unfortunately known best as Christian Grey from those godawful Fifty Shades of Grey movies (no, I haven’t seen them, nor do I ever intend to). For those of you who think Dornan is a bad actor based on those movies alone, I’ve got some potentially surprising news: he’s really good in Anthropoid. Amazing what an actor can do when given good material and a director who gives a shit.

For me, one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how genuine it feels. A lesser filmmaker could have taken this story and turned it into a Dirty Dozen-style action thriller about heroic underdogs assassinating a horrible person and subsequently going out in a blaze of glory. But director/producer/screenwriter/cinematographer Sean Ellis wisely and correctly realized that that would be a false way of telling the story, and instead makes the film frighteningly realistic. It portrays its characters as deeply flawed and unsure if what they’re doing is really the right course of action, and doesn’t gloss over the horrific consequences of their actions.

Image: Universal

Gabcik, Kubis, and their fellow conspirators are scared and uncertain. They were airdropped into Czechoslovakia with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to assassinate Heydrich, but the way the movie portrays it the details were mostly left to them. The first part of the film follows Gabcik and Kubis as they meet up with their contacts and form a plan to ambush Heydrich while he is out taking a drive. One of the biggest complications is that Heydrich sometimes travels with an armed escort and they haven’t been able to discern a pattern as to when Heydrich will be guarded.

They decide to wait for a day when Heydrich is unguarded, but when they receive news that Heydrich will be returning to Germany in a few days, it forces their hand and decide to ambush him regardless of the presence of an armed escort. Fortunately, when the moment arrives Heydrich is alone, but when Gabcik steps into the road in front of Heydrich’s car and attempts to open fire on him with a machine gun, his gun jams. As Heydrich and his driver prepare to shoot Gabcik, Kubis, who was positioned nearby, throws an anti-tank grenade at the vehicle and wounds Heydrich. Heydrich stays in the vehicle while his driver pursues Gabcik, who is able to shoot him and escapes.

This is the way the film portrays it, and from what I’ve read the film’s depiction of how the assassination played out is highly accurate. Ellis extensively researched the actions of every member involved in the assassination, and even portrays the events of the assassination in real time, meaning that the amount of time the film spends showing the assassination is the actual amount of time the events themselves took to occur.

That’s an impressive commitment to detail and historical accuracy. The entire film is tense as hell, and there’s very little artificiality to it. There’s little in the way of background music for most of the film, and Ellis uses this to increase the tension to nearly unbearable levels. There are no scenes of Gabcik and Kubis’ bosses back in London strategizing, and no scenes of Heydrich himself doing whatever it was that a sick bastard like him did in his day-to-day life. The viewer doesn’t know anything more about Heydrich’s movements than the assassins do. There is also a strong sense of just how isolated Gabcik and Kubis are. They have a few co-conspirators but little to no outside help. They are on their own.

At first, they fear that they botched the assassination, but a few days later, as they are hiding out in a church, they get the news that Heydrich died as a direct result of the wounds he sustained during the assassination attempt. From what I’ve read it sounds like he died of infected shrapnel wounds. The Nazis get a hint of the assassins’ location when one of their own, a Czech resistance operative named Karel Curda, betrays them for the sum of one million Reichsmarks.

Curda leads the Nazis to the home of the people Gabcik and Kubis stayed with during the planning of the attack. The mother of the family kills herself with a cyanide capsule before the Nazis can take her, but the rest of the family is not so lucky. There’s a horrific interrogation scene where the Nazis learn of the assassins’ location in a church from the teenage son of the family. I won’t describe the interrogation scene, but it’s appalling, and once again, from what I’ve read the depiction of the Gestapo’s interrogation methods is accurate, which is all the more horrifying if you see the film.

This leads to the final confrontation, which is one of the most epic and harrowing last stands in cinematic history. When the Nazis arrive at the church, three of the Czech resistance fighters are standing guard (one of which was Kubis) with the remaining four taking refuge in the crypt below the church. When the three start shooting, the four hiding in the crypt want to help but know that they can’t reveal themselves to the Nazis. The church shootout is intense and unrelenting, as the three Czechs desperately attempt to hold off wave after wave of well-armed and relentless German soldiers. Inevitably, all three are killed. The last to go is Kubis, who loads his last bullet into his gun at points it at his own head.

Just as he is about to pull the trigger, the film cuts to Gabcik’s horrified face in the crypt below as he hears the shot, and the expression on his face tells the whole story. It’s a quietly devastating moment, and is exemplary of the way Ellis directs the film. It’s not showy, it’s not stylized, it’s not drawn-out. It happens and it’s devastating and then it’s over and the survivors have to carry on. The Nazis soon realize where the remaining conspirators are hiding, and attempt to flush them out by flooding the crypt. Cornered, with the chamber flooding and the Nazis closing in, the surviving conspirators take their own lives.

Concluding text informs the viewer that Hitler’s reprisals were swift and terrible. Tens of thousands of Czechs were arrested, many of whom were later executed or died in concentration camps. The Czech villages of Lidice and Lezaky were burned to the ground and all their inhabitants either executed or imprisoned. It’s estimated that 5,000 innocent Czechs were killed as a direct result of Heydrich’s assassination. While the film mercifully doesn’t depict these events, it doesn’t ignore them either. Heydrich was the highest-ranking Nazi to be successfully assassinated during the Second World War, but it came at a terrible cost.

Image: Universal

The movie is a poignant examination of morality and justice, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of war. Anthropoid is not a combat movie like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, it’s closer to Schindler’s List or The Pianist. It’s hard to watch at times but is well worth the effort, even if you never want to see it again after the first viewing. It’s not as graphic as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, but is no less emotionally draining. It’s vividly realistic and fantastically-directed, with excellent performances across the board. It’s a movie that is challenging but very rewarding, and will stay with you for a long time.

Coming up next week is a long-awaited sequel to a bona fide sci-fi classic. It’s Blade Runner 2049.

Gentlemen Are Still Badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn is one of the best action directors working today. His films Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service have some of the most exciting, well-shot and well-choreographed action sequences in years. His latest film, the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, has all the kinetic action of his previous films, but his flaws as a storyteller have never been more apparent.

The first Kingsman movie introduced the titular spy agency, a clandestine group of gentlemen badasses who wore finely-tailored suits and also just so happened to be lethal killing machines. The first film showed the training of Eggsy, a Kingsman recruit with a lot of potential. Eggsy eventually became a full-fledged Kingsman agent and helped save the world from a megalomaniac bent on cleansing the world by killing most of its population.

It was a very fun movie that was a big hit when it was released in 2014. Now the sequel is here, and it’s a mess. Mind you, it’s a fun mess. But it is still a mess.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Let’s start with the characters. There are too many of them, and the movie has no idea what to do with most of them. There are returning characters from the movie. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly kills many of them off. There are new characters. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly shunts many of them off to the side for most of the overlong 141-minute running time.

Colin Firth was the star of the first Kingsman movie, and watching the debonair, Oscar-winning English actor kick ass was an unexpected joy. Sadly, his character was killed off. But what do you know, he’s back for the sequel! This isn’t a spoiler, he’s in all the trailers. How did he survive? I won’t spoil it, but I found the method of his survival to be awfully…well…convenient. My guess is that the filmmakers weren’t expecting Firth’s character to be such a hit, so they scrambled for a way to resurrect him in the sequel. It’s great to see Firth again, he’s great, but the new movie’s writing is sloppy.

Director Matthew Vaughn has no one but himself to blame for the movie’s sloppiness, since he co-wrote the screenplay. The movie’s marketing made a big deal out of the new characters, played by well-known actors such as Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry. But these characters have very little to do. Tatum in particular is barely in the movie. He has one big scene, then disappears until the end. I wondered if his role was supposed to be bigger but there were scheduling issues or something which prevented it. The movie initially positions him as an American version of hero Eggsy, then promptly drops him for most of the movie. Tatum’s character, heavily featured in the film’s marketing, is an afterthought.

As for the plot, it’s far-fetched to say the least. If the first Kingsman movie strained the limits of credibility, the second one obliterates them and it is impossible to take anything in the movie seriously. Case in point: the villain, Poppy Adams, played by Julianne Moore. Poppy easily takes home the title of “Most Cheerful Villain of the Year.” She has her own plan for world domination, which involves contaminating recreational drugs such as marijuana and heroin so that they paralyze and eventually kill people who use them. She’s obsessed with the 1950’s and lives in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. She’s completely ridiculous. She’s quirky but not scary, no offense to Julianne Moore, who does what she can with a weirdly-written role. Poppy spends literally the entire movie in her jungle utopia, and never registers as a credible threat. Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the first Kingsman movie was much more intimidating and memorable.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Still, early in the movie Poppy does manage to obliterate most of the Kingsman organization in one fell swoop. Surviving members Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) and Merlin (played by Mark Strong) realize that they need help, and this leads them to the discovery of the Statesmen, the American cousins of the Kingsmen. Where the Kingsmen are exaggerated versions of everything British, with their finely-tailored suits and impeccable manners, the Statesmen are exaggerated versions of all things ‘Murican.

You know, ‘Murican, like “American” with a thick southern drawl? The Statesmen are headquartered in Kentucky and are fond of lassos, revolvers, and cowboy hats and boots. Most of them have southern accents and all their agents are named after alcoholic beverages. Channing Tatum is Tequila, Halle Berry is Ginger Ale, and Jeff Bridges, the boss, is Champagne, or just Champ for short. There’s also Agent Whiskey, played by Pedro Pascal, a Game of Thrones alumnus whose character only lasted for one season before being killed in one of the most infamously gruesome deaths on a show known for killing main characters in grisly ways.

This movie is insane. It’s hard to put into words the sheer insanity that this movie puts on the screen. It has to be seen to be believed. The movie has an all-star cast, but there is one man who steals the entire movie. This is a bit of a spoiler, since this person’s involvement was kept pretty minimal in the film’s marketing.

Two words:

Elton.

John.

Yes, Sir Elton steals the movie. It turns out that Poppy has kidnapped him and forces him to perform songs for her at her jungle lair. He’s not very happy about it and yells a lot of f-words. Also, Poppy’s hideout is guarded by two robotic dogs named Bennie and Jet, who are programmed not to kill Elton John.

It’s hilarious.

It’s also utterly absurd.

And did I mention Poppy’ rather bizarre way of indoctrinating new henchmen? It involves making them eat hamburgers made out of, uh, other henchmen.

So, yeah.

This movie is batshit. It’s the most batshit movie I’ve seen all year. The plot is a ridiculous mess, most of the characters are underused, and it’s a good twenty minutes too long.

But at the end of the day, I still had fun with it. Was I entertained? You bet I was. Matthew Vaughn’s screenwriting and storytelling could use some work, but his direction of the action scenes is top-notch. The first scene of the movie is a ten-minute car chase through the middle of London involving cars armed with miniguns and a bad guy with a robotic arm, and it only gets crazier from there.

The climactic battle at Poppy’s jungle hideout is one of the most joyously fun action scenes I’ve seen all year. It’s set to Elton John’s classic song Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has always been a favorite of mine. Watching two Englishmen in bespoke suits battling an army of henchmen in a 50’s-inspired jungle utopia while Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting plays in the background is something I didn’t know how badly I needed until I saw it. Thank you, movie, for giving me back a piece of myself that I didn’t even know I was missing.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Look, this movie is a clusterf*ck on an epic scale, but hot damn if it isn’t still fun. Its flaws are legion but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a guilty pleasure, for sure. I hope Matthew Vaughn keeps making movies this fun, although it would be nice if he sharpened up the writing a bit.

Coming up next is a movie that’s a bit obscure, but it’s one that I really like. I’m not seeing any new movies this weekend, so I’m going to take a look at a film from last year that it is an underseen gem. It’s a movie called Anthropoid. If you’ve never heard of it I’m not surprised. It’s a World War II film about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust. There’s going to be some dark stuff, but hopefully I can convince you to check out this underappreciated movie. See you next week.

Mitch Rapp: American Assassin

Before his death in 2013 at the age of 47 from cancer, Vince Flynn wrote 14 bestselling books, 13 of which starred ultra-badass counterterrorism agent Mitch Rapp. Flynn’s first book was published in 1997, and his first Mitch Rapp book was published in 1999. It took Hollywood a while to make a movie based on Flynn’s work, and the first one, American Assassin, was released last week.

I love the Mitch Rapp books. Rapp is a no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He never met a terrorist whose kneecap he didn’t want to put a bullet in. He doesn’t give a damn about the constantly-debating politicians in Washington. He will do whatever he has to in order to stop terrorists from killing innocent people.

Image: Lionsgate

This attitude frequently puts him in conflict with the politicians, which leads to much of the drama in the books, aside from Mitch kicking terrorist ass, which he does prodigiously. But he’s not just a meathead who is good at killing bad guys. He has a tragic backstory and a fascinating personality, and I cared about him a lot as I read the books.

One of my favorite parts of the books was Rapp’s developing relationship with his girlfriend and later wife Anna Reilly, a reporter he rescues from a terrorist attack and subsequently falls in love with. Flynn lets their relationship develop over several books, and in Flynn’s seventh novel Consent to Kill, which is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the best espionage thrillers ever written, (book spoiler alert) I was genuinely heartbroken when Anna was killed by a bomb that was meant for her husband. Killing his wife turns out to be the worst mistake the bad guys could have possibly made, as it leads Mitch to unleash an unstoppable tidal wave of unholy vengeance upon them.

By the way, that terrorist attack Mitch rescues Anna from? That was at the White House. Vince Flynn told the story of the White House being invaded by terrorists in 1999, well before Hollywood got around to making not one but two White House invasion movies in 2013. So yeah, Mitch Rapp is a badass, as was his creator.

The new film, American Assassin, is based on Flynn’s novel of the same name. Although it was published in 2010, making it one of his later books, it is the first chronologically and serves as the origin story for Mitch Rapp. So it makes sense that it would be the first to be adapted for film. I can’t say exactly how well the movie follows the story of the book, since I read it several years ago, but it does a commendable job of capturing the feel of Flynn’s books.

Mitch is played in the film by Dylan O’Brien, a 26-year-old actor known mostly for the YA sci-fi series The Maze Runner, as well as the TV series Teen Wolf. I was a bit skeptical of O’Brien’s casting, since he seemed like a bit of a heartthrob for teenage girls, but he does good work in the role. He doesn’t quite have the charisma of Daniel Craig or Matt Damon, but then, Mitch Rapp was never much in the charisma department. He’s a man of action, not words. Mitch’s teacher and mentor Stan Hurley is played by the great Michael Keaton, who has a lot of fun chewing scenery and being a crusty, cantankerous badass.


Image: Lionsgate

In the movie’s opening scene, Mitch is on vacation with his girlfriend in Spain. He proposes to her and she accepts. It seems like an idyllic scene, until gunfire breaks out and Mitch’s girlfriend and many other people are killed by terrorists, and Mitch himself is shot multiple times. It’s a tense, effective scene, and effectively establishes the mood of the film.

Eighteen months later, Mitch lives a solitary life and is consumed with vengeance. He frequents an internet message board where he makes contact with the Jihadist cell responsible for the attack that killed his girlfriend, and is able to infiltrate them. The CIA has gotten wind of this and takes out the cell before Mitch can exact his vengeance.

He is then drafted into a black ops unit codenamed Orion and sent to Stan Hurley for training. The rest of the film’s plot involves nuclear weapons in the hands of people you really don’t want to have nuclear weapons, and a rogue operative with the (rather unoriginal) codename Ghost, played by Taylor Kitsch. I’ll be honest, the plot didn’t blow me away. It followed some predictable twists and turns, most of which didn’t offer any big surprises. But it was serviceable. I don’t know how closely the movie’s plot followed that of the book, since I read it several years ago. But the movie’s story gets the job done in a solid if unspectacular fashion.

There’s quite a bit of action in the film, all of which is well-executed, although the movie doesn’t have a standout action sequence that really stuck with me. Still, the film’s action is solid, and it is always a thrill to see one of your literary heroes given life on the big screen, even if the adaptation is flawed. The movie is R-rated and doesn’t pull any punches with regards to the violence or profanity. This is as it should be, since Mitch Rapp has always been an R-rated guy.


Image: Lionsgate

There’s a torture scene late in the film which is brutal, but also kind of hilarious because Michael Keaton gets to go for it and just go full-on crazy. It’s one of the best scenes in the film because of Keaton’s performance, and reminded me quite a bit of the infamous torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s brutal, but hard to look away from, and even has moments of dark, brilliant humor.

I saw the movie with my dad, since he was the one who got me hooked on the books in the first place and we are both big Mitch Rapp fans. While it’s not the best spy thriller ever made, we both enjoyed it, and a good manly time was had by all. The plot is ho-hum but the action and the performances are solid, and I think it will satisfy fans of Flynn’s excellent books.

Coming up next, we’ve got even more spies and assassins, but this time with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. It’s the return of everyone’s favorite gentlemen badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

IT: You’ll Float Too

As of this writing, I’ve read 38 of Stephen King’s books, and IT is by far my favorite. The story of a shape-shifting, ancient evil being dwelling in the sewers beneath the streets of Derry, Maine has been terrifying readers since It was first published in 1986, and with the release of the new movie, It is set to traumatize a whole new generation. Before we get started, let me say that I will do my best to avoid spoilers for the new film, but there will be spoilers for the book. So yeah, spoiler alert for a book that was published thirty years ago. Also, for anyone who has a phobia of evil clowns, be aware that I will not be including any images that directly show the evil clown. It’s okay, you’re safe.

But you know who isn’t safe? The main characters of IT. The most obvious challenge of adapting King’s book for the screen is Its intimidating length. The novel is well over a thousand pages long, and every aspect of the story is richly detailed. Aside from Its length, the other challenge is the way in which King tells the story. Every time I think about the way King structured the novel, I am blown away. Basically, there are two main sections of the story. The first follows the main characters, who call themselves the Losers Club, as they face It for the first time as children, and the second follows the Losers as they confront It again as adults.

Image: Warner Bros.

You would think that the book would be divided into two sections, the first about the Losers as kids and the second about them as adults. But that’s not the way King does it. He doesn’t tell the story chronologically, instead bouncing back and forth between the two time periods. As the Losers grow into adulthood and move away from their hometown of Derry, they forget their experiences with It until the one member of their group who stayed in Derry calls them individually to tell them that It is back. As they return to Derry, parts of their pasts begin to come back to them, so the reader learns about their history along with them. That is a brilliant way of constructing the story, and it keeps the reader guessing for the entire time, which is no easy feat when you consider the length of the novel.

This too presents obvious problems for adaptation. It would be impossible to make one movie out of the novel and follow the structure King used, unless the movie was like five hours long. No one wants to sit in a theater for five consecutive hours, so clearly compromises must be made. The book was first adapted into a two-part television miniseries which aired on ABC in 1990. The miniseries famously starred the great Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one of Its favorite incarnations. Watching the miniseries today, it’s not very scary. It’s campy and sometimes creepy, but by today’s standards it’s fairly tame. Curry is great as Pennywise, but since the miniseries was on ABC it had to adhere to broadcast standards, so it feels like a neutered version of King’s story, and most of the gore and hardcore terror of the novel is missing.

The new film is R-rated and does not have such restrictions. As such, it is free to revel in the gore and nightmarish imagery of King’s twisted imagination, and does so with aplomb. If you have a phobia of clowns, do not under any circumstances ever see this movie. It will scar you for life. This is the single scariest movie I have ever seen in the theater, and I audibly gasped a few times while watching It, which is something that simply never happens.

The makers of the new film have wisely decided to focus on one part of the story. The film only tells the story of the Losers Club as kids. This is only half the story, but makes sense in terms of adaptation. It does make me a little sad, since the way King structured the novel was one of my favorite things about It. But like I talked about earlier, filming the novel the same way it is written would be nearly impossible, so the filmmakers get a pass. Since the movie is currently making bank at the box office, a sequel is looking increasingly likely, and I am 100% on board with the same creative team making a sequel, because they nailed It.

Whew. That was probably the longest intro to any post I’ve ever written. So, what is It actually about? As great as Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise is, it seems to have given people who haven’t read the book the impression that It is simply about an evil clown terrorizing children. While there is an evil clown and It does terrorize children, to think of It as just an evil clown story would be doing It a grave injustice.
There is a reason the book is about twelve hundred pages long, after all. It is a story about friendship, love, childhood, memory, overcoming trauma and fear, and being stronger together than you are by yourself. The book is terrifying and gruesome and disturbing, but It is also deeply moving. King has a wonderful understanding of his characters, and their interactions and relationships feel completely real, as both kids and adults.

Image: Warner Bros.

The characters are some of the best King has ever written, and all of them have qualities which make them unique. Stuttering Bill Denbrough is the de facto leader of the group, who has the most personal grudge against Pennywise. Richie Tozier is a loudmouth whose trash-talking and inability to shut up frequently lands himself and his friends in hot water. Eddie Kaspbrak is a hypochondriac who lives with his overbearing mother. Stan Uris is the son of a rabbi, and is the one who has the hardest time accepting the reality of Its existence. Mike Hanlon is the only black member of the group, and the only one to remain in Derry as an adult. And then there are my two favorites: sweet, chubby Ben Hanscom, who is the new kid in town and is frequently bullied because of his weight. Last but not least is clever, pretty Beverly Marsh, the only girl in the group, and whose father is a bit too concerned about her, if you catch my drift.

They all have their own encounters with various incarnations of It, and realize that they must band together in order to defeat It. It is not just an evil clown. It is an ancient, otherworldly being who is able to change Its form according to whatever Its victim is most afraid of. At first, the Losers are not sure if they have encountered the same thing, since they all experience different terrifying versions of It. But why does It like the damn clown so much? In the book, the implication is that the clown is the lowest common denominator, the thing that everyone is afraid of, so when It appears to the Losers as a group, It takes the shape of Pennywise, the most terrifying clown in history. Stephen King himself has said he will never write a sequel to It because Pennywise scares him too much, which is saying something coming from a guy who has been giving people nightmares since his first book was published in 1974.

Another brilliant thing about the book is the way King subverts people’s expectations of a horror story. In most cases, the reader or viewer of a scary book or movie is not overly concerned with the kids in the story, since the kids usually survive. King blows this out of the water in the book’s very first chapter, a hauntingly unforgettable scene in which It brutally murders Bill Denbrough’s six-year-old brother Georgie. And when I say brutal, I mean brutal. IT RIPS GEORGIE’S DAMN ARM OFF AND HE BLEEDS TO DEATH. The book takes no prisoners, and quickly establishes that the kids are not safe. They are in mortal peril, and the book uses this to ratchet up the tension and the horror.

I am happy to report that the film does the same. The movie closely follows the parts of the book that it covers, and while there are a few minor changes the overall adaptation is very faithful, and does an admirable job capturing the spirit of the book. The movie was originally going to be directed by Cary Fukunaga, who directed the brilliant first season of HBO’s True Detective. Fukunaga left the project due to creative differences and was replaced by Andy Muschietti, an Argentinean director whose only previous feature was a 2013 horror film called Mama. I haven’t seen the feature version of Mama, but I have seen Muschietti’s original short film upon which the feature version of Mama is based. The short film is on YouTube, and it is creepy as hell. Muschietti does an excellent job with It, and presents some of the most nightmarish and horrific images I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Well done, sir.

Also excellent is the movie’s young cast. Making an R-rated horror movie starring a cast of mostly-unknown child actors is a risky proposition. But Muschietti’s efforts have paid off tremendously, since not only is It a hit critically and commercially, but Its young cast is also excellent. If the relationships between the Losers didn’t work, then the movie itself wouldn’t work, but all the young actors are fantastic. They have great chemistry with each other and there is a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship between them. You have no trouble believing that they would die for each other. Kudos to the casting director for the movie, it must have been hard to find the right actors to play the Losers, but they’re all great. The movie also omits the book’s most controversial scene, and if you’ve read the book you know which scene I’m talking about. I think we can all agree that leaving out that scene was the right thing to do.

But of course we must address the elephant in the room. What about Pennywise? After all, Pennywise is the most famous character in the movie. In the new movie, Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgard, who is the son of Stellan Skarsgard and brother of Alexander Skarsgard. Being an actor runs in the family I guess. Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise is, in a word, TERRIFYING. Skarsgard said in interviews that he was aware of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise, and chose not to incorporate any of Curry’s mannerisms into his own performance. A wise decision, since the new version of Pennywise is bone-chillingly frightening, without a hint of the camp of Curry’s version. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a soullessly evil monster without a shred of pity.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie caught some flak online for its marketing, which some people thought showed too much of Pennywise, believing that the less he was seen beforehand, the more frightening he would be onscreen. Fair enough, but he is still terrifying, and the marketing did not show any of Its other incarnations. After all, Pennywise is but one of many. All of the movie’s versions of It are very scary, and many of them are different from Its forms in the book and miniseries. The filmmakers did this so the movie would feel fresh and would surprise viewers, and they succeeded. It is scary in whatever form It takes.

It is not a movie for everyone. It does not hesitate to depict graphic violence directed against children. This is evident from the opening scene, faithfully adapted from the novel, in which It relieves poor Georgie Denbrough of his arm. The sight of a young child screaming in pain as blood gushes from his severed arm is upsetting to say the least. But damn if it isn’t effective.

Another of my favorite aspects of the novel is King’s understanding of being a kid. The book explores how kids are better equipped to fight It, because they can accept Its existence in a way that adults can’t. When Georgie Denbrough first sees It in a storm drain in the book’s first chapter, King writes that were he ten years older, Georgie would not believe what he was seeing. But Georgie is six, not sixteen, so when he sees a clown in a storm drain, he accepts that It’s real without question. If an adult encountered a clown in a storm drain, he or she would make up any number of excuses to explain the sight, and would probably question his or her own sanity before accepting the reality of what their eyes show them. But as King points out, a kid does not have this problem. The movie, remarkably, captures this.

It is not all monsters and gore. The movie gives the kids time to just be kids, and is surprisingly funny at times. It shows them bonding and having fun, especially in a lovely sequence where they all jump in the lake and just horse around with each other. Their friendship feels genuine, and their relationships reminded me a bit of the kids in E.T., or JJ Abrams’ Super 8, although It is far more graphic than either of those two films. I’ve also heard comparisons to the kids in another film based on a King story, 1986’s Stand By Me. I haven’t seen Stand By Me, but I have no reason to doubt the comparison.

It is a tremendous film. I’m not going to see it again in the theater, since seeing It on the big screen once was enough, thanks. But I will be buying the Blu-Ray and watching all the special features. The movie only tells half the book’s story, but it does so extremely well, and feels like a complete story in and of itself. It leaves the story open for more, but still gives the viewer a sense of closure, and doesn’t end on a cheap cliffhanger. The acting is great across the board and the film looks terrific. The movie isn’t able to explore all of my favorite aspects of the book, since many of them are tied onto the book’s nonlinear structure, and the movie also doesn’t go into much detail about the origins of It, but these are inevitable consequences of adapting such a long book, and could be further explored in the sequel.

Image: Warner Bros.

It is one of the best-ever adaptations of Stephen King’s work, of which there are more than you realize. It is terrifying and disturbing, but unlike many modern horror films, the characters feel real and the viewer cares about them, deeply. King’s messed-up story is one of my favorite books of all time, and this is a worthy adaptation of what I consider to be a prolific writer’s masterpiece. Clearly I’m not alone in my reverence for the story, since the movie made a whopping $117 million over its opening weekend, far exceeding expectations and breaking several box office records.

Bring on Part 2. I can’t wait, although I might be watching from behind my hands.

Coming up next, another one of my literary heroes gets an adaptation. This time it’s American Assassin, starring Mitch Rapp, a kickass CIA agent from an excellent series of spy novels by the late, great Vince Flynn. See you next week for spies and assassins, and a whole lot of butt-kicking along the way.

Le Cinema de WTF: A Cure for Wellness

Most people probably know Gore Verbinski as the director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As successful as those films were, it’s easy to forget just how bizarre they were, as well as being easily the darkest and most violent films Disney had ever produced. Verbinski delivered another bizarre blockbuster with The Lone Ranger in 2013, but this one wasn’t nearly as successful, instead becoming one of the most expensive flops of all time.

Verbinski’s latest effort, A Cure for Wellness, was released this last February, and is one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. It also underperformed at the box office, grossing $26 million against a $40 million budget. Be warned, I’m going to spoil the heck out of this movie. Also, there will be a high Ick Factor, since this movie is genuinely messed up. I’ll avoid getting too graphic, but some of the subject matter in this film is disturbing and gross. You have been warned. Here we go.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The film’s protagonist is a young man named Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan, who looks a bit like a more pallid version of Leonardo DiCaprio. Lockhart is a real jerk. He’s obsessed with his work as a stockbroker, constantly chews nicotine gum, and is rude and abrasive to others. He is soon summoned to meet with his superiors at his office, who have him read a letter written to the board of directors by the company’s CEO, a man named Roland Pembroke.

Pembroke was at a wellness retreat in Switzerland for a few weeks and has not returned. The bizarre contents of the letter seem to indicate that Pembroke has had a nervous breakdown. His bosses tell Lockhart that they are aware of some of his (Lockhart’s) illegal activities, and that he is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is ordered to go to Switzerland and bring Pembroke back, since the company is on the verge of a large merger and they need Pembroke’s authorization. There is also the implication that they will use Pembroke as a scapegoat for any corporate malfeasance.

On the way to the wellness center, which sits atop a hill, Lockhart’s driver Enrico explains to him that there is bad blood between the villagers and the people on the hill. This is because 200 years ago, the baron of the castle became obsessed with keeping his bloodline pure. As a result, he married his sister. But the story goes that she had a mysterious illness, and in his search for a cure, the baron began experimenting on the villagers. After finding the mummified corpses of the baron’s test subjects, the villagers revolted, burning the baron’s castle down and killing his pregnant wife/sister, but not before removing the fetus from her womb and throwing it in the lake.

Yuck. I told you there would be gross stuff. Upon arriving at the spa, which is built atop the ruins of the baron’s burned-down castle, Lockhart’s attempts to meet with Pembroke are met with resistance from the spa’s staff. He’s eventually able to secure a meeting with Pembroke later in the day, and tells Enrico to drive him back down the hill to a hotel. On the way, a deer runs in front of the car, causing it to crash.

Lockhart wakes up at the spa, with his right leg encased in a thick plaster cast. He meets the spa’s director, Dr. Heinreich Volmer, played by Jason Isaacs. Volmer tells Lockhart that he’s been unconscious for three days, and that his office has been informed of the accident and agreed that Lockhart should stay at the spa until further notice. Volmer tells Lockhart to try out the spa’s treatments, and to drink plenty of water. Lockhart drinks a glass of the spa’s water, and discovers a tiny creature wriggling inside a drop of water clinging to the inside of the glass.

That, of course, is a big warning sign that all is not well. Verbinski does an excellent job of establishing a creepy and ominous mood, and the entire film is soaked in dread and menace. It’s also gorgeous to look at. Some of it was filmed at Hohenzollern Castle in Germany, which reminded me a lot of Hogwarts with its sharp-looking towers pointing towards the sky. An abandoned hospital in Germany was also used for the interior locations of the spa. There are some stunning shots in this film, and Verbinski has a hell of an eye for striking compositions.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The rest of the film follows Lockhart as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of the so-called wellness center. Along the way, he meets a young woman named Hannah, played by an actress appropriately named Mia Goth who is 23 but looks about 13. It’s unclear if Hannah is a patient, but she tells Lockhart that Dr. Volmer considers her to be a “special case.” It is also unclear how old she is, she appears to be in her early-to-mid-teens but has a quality of childlike innocence. She also drinks a strange fluid from a small blue bottle on a chain around her neck, which she says are vitamins. Lockhart has seen other people at the spa doing the same thing, including Dr. Volmer himself. She lets Lockhart try some, and he says it tastes like sweaty seafood.

Lockhart meets Pembroke and convinces him to return to New York with him. But later, Lockhart can’t find Pembroke and none of the spa’s staff will tell him where he is. He steals Pembroke’s patient files, but since they’re in German he can’t read them. He discovers x-rays of Pembroke’s mouth, which appears to show his teeth falling out. Lockhart takes the files to a veterinarian in the village, who tells him that one possible cause of Pembroke’s teeth falling out is chronic dehydration. Dehydration? Lockhart is confused by this. The people at the spa drink water all the time. How could they be dehydrated?

Lockhart undergoes some of the spa’s treatments, including being submerged inside a large water tank in what I assume to be a sensory deprivation chamber. The orderly tending to Lockhart gets distracted by a nurse, and the tank begins to fill with slithery, writhing eels. One of them disconnects Lockhart’s breathing tube and he nearly drowns until the orderly and the nurse rescue him. But when he tells them something was in the tank with him, there’s nothing there.

Other strange things start happening. The handle on the toilet in Lockhart’s room rattles periodically on its own. He catches glimpses of what look like bodies being wheeled on gurneys into the ruins of the baron’s old castle late at night. A patient he befriended tells him that the baron’s child, the one removed from his wife/sister and thrown into the lake, somehow survived. Lockhart calls his bosses in New York, only to discover that they had no idea about the accident.

That night, one of Lockhart’s front teeth comes loose and he pulls it out himself. He takes it to one of the nurses, and while she is distracted, he sneaks into some of the secure parts of the hospital and makes some horrifying discoveries. He finds a room full of what appear to be dead bodies floating in tanks of water. One of them is Pembroke. He also finds a large underground chamber next to a pool of water, into which desiccated corpses are dumped and subsequently consumed by eels. He assumes that Dr. Volmer is continuing the baron’s twisted experiments. He finds an underground lair full of jars of nasty-looking things and what look like human faces floating in containers of water. On the wall, there is a painting of a woman who strongly resembles Hannah.

Lockhart, when we first meet him, is a deeply unlikable character. He’s an arrogant jerk. But his tenacity serves him well in his pursuit of the dark secret that lies at the heart of the mysterious wellness center deep in the Swiss Alps. He’s still a jerk, but he becomes a more sympathetic jerk as the film progresses. He goes through some traumatic experiences, and it’s hard not to sympathize with someone who experiences the horrors that he does. Dane DeHaan gives a compelling performance as the lead character, and Jason Isaacs, aka Lucius Malfoy, is chilling as Dr. Volmer.

Isaacs deserves credit for his restrained performance. Volmer could easily have been a mustache-twirling villain, but Isaacs underplays him, which makes him much more frightening. The movie is tense as hell, and the consistently ominous atmosphere coupled with the film’s gorgeous scenery and quality performances makes it compelling, despite the high gross-out factor. It was also a clever move to put Lockhart in a clunky leg cast for much of the movie, so his attempts to escape are hampered by his impaired mobility.

If you thought there was gross stuff earlier, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Upon being discovered, Lockhart is subjected to a horrifying dental procedure that will give anyone with a phobia of dentists or drills nightmares. He manages to escape and flees to the police in the village. The sympathetic police chief promises to help and leaves Lockhart alone to make a phone call. Looking around the chief’s office, Lockhart notices one of the small blue bottles the people from the spa use to take their so-called “vitamins.” The police chief is one of them. There is no escape for Lockhart, or for anyone at the wellness center. He is recaptured by Volmer and subjected to more “treatments.”

Image: 20th Century Fox

He starts to give in and believe that he is not well. But he has a moment of clarity and cuts open the cast on his leg, revealing that it was never broken at all. While this is happening, Hannah is in the swimming pool and has her first period. She runs to Volmer, not knowing what is happening to her. Lockhart arrives, and attempts to convince the patients that Volmer is responsible for making them sick with the tainted spa water.

He is rendered unconscious and when he wakes up, the film’s most disturbing scene commences and we finally learn the secret of what is in the blue bottles of “vitamins.” This is seriously nasty, so prepare yourself. Lockhart awakens to find himself locked in a large metal pod, in a room full of people in similar devices. Volmer appears and tells him that the water from the local aquifer has unique qualities which are toxic to humans but allow the eels living in the water to live hundreds of years. Centuries ago, the baron devised a way to filter the water through the bodies of humans, which is what Volmer now uses the patients for. The process results in the life-prolonging liquid but turns the patients into shriveled corpses, which are then fed to the eels. In a profoundly horrifying scene that is one of the grossest and most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie, Volmer forces a tube down Lockhart’s throat and pumps him full of eel-filled water, which is then distilled and collected in the blue bottles.

Disgusting. But that’s not the end. The film has one more big twist up its sleeve. Have you guessed it yet? Here it is: Volmer is the baron and Hannah is his daughter/niece, and they are both hundreds of years old, aging incredibly slowly due to the effects of the eel-water. But here’s the worst part: Volmer has been waiting for Hannah to come of age, so he can impregnate her.

ICK!!! That’s just vile. Gore Verbinski co-wrote the story with Justin Haythe, who also co-wrote The Lone Ranger, and it is one of the most twisted movies I’ve ever seen from a major Hollywood studio (the movie was released by 20th Century Fox). It’s hard to imagine how this film got greenlit in the first place, I would love to have been a fly on the wall during that pitch meeting. If I had to describe the film to someone who had never heard of it, I would call it a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.

In the film’s climax, Volmer takes Hannah to his underground lair, which reminds me a lot of the Phantom of the Opera’s hideout in various movies. Before he can rape Hannah, Lockhart appears and sets the place on fire. In the ensuing struggle, Volmer tears his face off to reveal his hideously burned and scarred true face. He claims that everything he’s done has been for Hannah, and is about to kill Lockhart when Hannah plants a shovel in his head. He falls into the eel-filled water, and is consumed.

Lockhart and Hannah flee the burning castle on Hannah’s bicycle and literally run smack-dab into a car carrying Lockhart’s bosses, who have gotten fed up with waiting and come to Switzerland to find out what the hell is going on. They ask him about Pembroke. Lockhart tells them Pembroke is gone. They tell him to get in the car. He refuses. They ask what’s wrong with him. “Nothing,” he tells them. “I’m feeling much better now.” He gets back on the bike and rides away with Hannah, as an unhinged grin appears on Lockhart’s face. The film then cuts to black, and that’s the end.

Whew. A Cure for Wellness is a harrowing journey. It’s a twisted carnival ride full of increasingly nightmarish imagery. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made very often nowadays. It’s an R-rated extravaganza of depraved monstrosities. It’s also two and a half hours long. I’m not surprised the movie didn’t do well in theaters, it doesn’t have much mainstream appeal. Still, Fox didn’t skimp on the marketing, since the movie had an ad during the most recent Super Bowl. Someone at Fox clearly believed in Gore Verbinski and Justin Haythe’s disturbing vision.

If reading the lurid details about the film makes you want to never ever see it, I completely understand. But I still like it. It’s encouraging to see filmmakers who aren’t afraid to let their imaginations run wild, and encouraging that there are people who support them. I’m not trying to say that A Cure for Wellness is a perfect film. Its flaws are numerous. Its intimidating 146-minute running time could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes, and some scenes drag on longer than they need to. There are plot holes and unexplained images that are thrown in seemingly for the sole purpose of messing with people. The film’s content pushes the limits of good taste more than once, and sometimes it feels like Verbinski and Haythe pile on the grotesqueries and bodily fluids simply because they can, so there is that element of artistic self-indulgence.

Still, some part of me really likes this messed-up movie, and even admires it a little bit. It’s something completely original. It’s not a prequel or a sequel or a remake. It’s not an adaptation of anything. It’s well-made, well-acted, and beautifully filmed. It also just so happens to me profoundly twisted and disturbing. It’s the kind of movie where you’re not sure what is real and what is a product of the protagonist’s increasingly unstable mind. Obviously, it’s not a movie that will appeal to everyone, but if you think you can stomach it (and don’t mind the fact that I’ve thoroughly spoiled the plot) then check it out. It’s the kind of movie where you notice things about it that you didn’t catch the first time. It’s an elaborate puzzle box of a movie that I think time will be kind to.

Coming up next, we all float down here! It’s the long-awaited new version of Stephen King’s terrifying masterpiece, IT. See you next week for scary clowns and ancient evils!

Sweet dreams!

Hell or High Water

Sometimes, a movie’s title is so perfect that I don’t need to think of a title when I write about it. 2016’s Hell or High Water is such a film. I’m going to get real with you guys here. We’re going to get into some intense emotional stuff, and I’ll be quoting a lot of the film’s brilliant dialogue, which will include uncensored f-words. Also, there will be a lot of spoilers. Here we go.

Image: Lionsgate

Hell or High Water is the story of four men. Two are brothers by blood, two are brothers by friendship. The blood brothers are Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Tanner, the older brother, was recently released from prison after ten years for killing the brothers’ abusive father in a hunting accident that may not have been so accidental. While his older brother was incarcerated, Toby cared for their terminally ill mother. Toby is estranged from his wife and two sons, and the recent death of their mother has left Toby deep in debt, unable to pay child support to his wife, and the bank is about to foreclose on the family ranch, on which oil has recently been discovered. Desperate for money, Toby enlists his brother’s help to rob a series of banks.

Toby is the brains of the operation, and the robberies are well-planned. They hit the banks early in the morning when there are less people there, and they take lower denominations of bills. They then launder the money at a casino, where they convert the stolen cash into poker chips, and then after a bit of drinking and gambling, they have the casino convert their “winnings” into a check made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, the same bank they’ve been robbing. Toby’s clever plan pays the bank back with their own money, and the bank has no way of tracing it.

Despite Toby’s well-crafted scheme, his big brother Tanner is unpredictable. He is aggressive and takes unnecessary risks, which frustrates Toby. But Toby also has a conscience, and despite being the brains of the operation, he would be a terrible criminal without his brother’s help. Toby needs Tanner, and they both know it.

There’s a lot of pent-up resentment between the brothers, exemplified when Toby tells Tanner that “while you were in prison, I was taking care of Mom, so you can go fuck yourself.” Toby resents Tanner’s wildness, while Tanner feels he’s doing Toby a favor, and since they both know Toby would suck as a criminal without Tanner’s help, Toby should just shut up and let him help. “How the fuck have you managed to stay out of prison for a year?” Toby asks his brother at one point. “It’s been difficult,” Tanner admits.

The relationship between these two characters is utterly fascinating, and all of it feels completely real. Pine and Foster have a relaxed, easy chemistry, and are completely believable as brothers. The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, a former actor who also wrote the bleak thriller Sicario in 2015, which is an incredibly good movie. Hell or High Water demonstrates many of Sheridan’s strengths as a writer: sharp dialogue, believable characters, and murky morality. The viewer of Hell or High Water is never sure who to root for, and the film wisely withholds judgment on its characters, leaving the viewers to form their own decisions.

Image: Lionsgate

But Toby and Tanner are only half of the equation. The brothers by friendship are Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played respectively by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Hamilton and Parker are the two Texas Rangers investigating the brothers’ bank robberies. Marcus is nearing mandatory retirement, and figures this bank-robber caper will be his last hurrah. Alberto is half-Native American, half-Mexican, and endures constant jabs from Marcus about his heritage. After one of many insults, Alberto sighs and says, “You know I’m part Mexican, too.” Marcus’ response: “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”

It may not seem like these men are brothers, but they are. In the special features on the film’s Blu-ray, Sheridan talks about how Marcus insults Alberto because he doesn’t know how to express how much Alberto means to him. It’s a toxic way of expressing love and friendship, Sheridan says, but it’s the only way Marcus knows. Sheridan’s writing is so good at capturing characters that feel like real people. He is also good at suggesting backstory without overly explaining everything. Much of the backstory I talked about between Toby and Tanner earlier isn’t spelled out or shown directly, but Sheridan’s dialogue is so good that it doesn’t have to be. Sheridan respects the viewers to be able to put the pieces together for themselves.

And there are many moments that are quietly heartbreaking. When Alberto suggests to Marcus that he needs a hobby, maybe horseback riding, Marcus rejects the idea. “Marybeth was the horse rider,” he says. “It would just remind me of her.” The knowledge that Marcus lost his wife makes the viewer reconsider Marcus’ actions. Without his wife, Marcus’ work and his friendship with Alberto mean that much more. There’s never any mention of Marcus’ wife aside from this one line, but it speaks volumes about his character.

Image: Lionsgate

The movie was directed by David Mackenzie, a Scottish filmmaker who does a brilliant job capturing the feel of rural, small-town America. The movie mostly takes place in west Texas, although it was filmed in New Mexico. The environment is as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As Toby and Tanner drive to and from their various bank heists, they constantly pass signs and billboards reading “FOR SALE” and “FAST CASH” and “DEBT RELIEF”, making the reality of Toby’s financial woes all the more real.

Toby is a good man whose life is falling apart, and he’s been forced to take extreme actions to help his family. I’m not trying to say robbing banks is a good idea, but Toby is a deeply sympathetic character. You could even argue that his motives are altruistic, since the money from the robberies goes towards paying off the bank and setting up a trust in his family’s name, so that they will be able to keep the ranch in the future, and live off the money the oil-drilling will provide for them. “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation,” Toby tells Marcus near the end of the film. “But not my boys, not anymore.”

Even the volatile Tanner is a complex character. While many of his actions are horrendous (he kills a bank security guard, a civilian, and a cop without a hint of remorse) and his behavior is sometimes despicable (he scares off a woman putting the moves on Toby at a bar, only to seduce a hotel receptionist mere minutes later), you could still make the argument that he does what he does in order to help his brother and his family. Conversely, you could argue that he’s a cold-blooded killer who only does it for the thrill. The fact that you could make a convincing argument either way is another testament to the strength of Taylor Sheridan’s writing.

It should go without saying that things eventually go wrong for the bandit brothers. They eventually bite off more than they can chew when they try to rob a larger branch of the bank when there are a lot of people there. They soon learn the perils of bank-robbing in Texas, and are pursued by a heavily-armed posse when their attempted robbery devolves into a shootout. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, but it’s also wryly funny. “Those concealed-carry permits sure complicate bank robberies,” Tanner says as they drive away in a hail of bullets.

After Tanner scares the posse away by unloading three clips from an assault rifle at them, the brothers go their separate ways in what is my favorite scene in the film. Toby, taking the money and limping from a bullet wound in his side, staggers over to his car. As he opens the door and gets in, Tanner leans out from the driver’s side of his bullet-riddled pickup truck. “Hey, Toby,” he says.

Toby looks up.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” Tanner says.

Toby smiles faintly. “I love you, too,” he says, and shuts the car door.

“Hey, Toby,” Tanner says again.

Toby looks up again.

“Go fuck yourself,” Tanner says with a grin.

Toby grins back. “Go fuck yourself,” he replies.

They both laugh and drive in different directions, never to see each other again.

That short scene is, to me, the definition of brotherly love. These two men don’t always see eye-to-eye, they frequently don’t even like each other. But they love each other just the same. It’s not a long, drawn-out goodbye, because it doesn’t have to be. But it’s deeply moving just the same. Tanner leads the cops away, singing merrily to himself as they chase after him. He leads them to a mountain ridge, where he takes shots at them with a rifle.

Marcus and Alberto are among the pursuers, and as they take cover behind a police car, a shot rings out and hits Alberto in the head, killing him instantly. It takes Marcus a few seconds to realize what has happened, and once he does, his strangled gasp is heartbreaking. But Tanner has the high ground, and the cops can’t get to him. Marcus finds a local resident who knows the area, and manages to get behind Tanner. Tanner, unaware of this, continues firing at the lawmen. “Lord of the plains,” he grins to himself. “That’s me.” The view changes to Marcus aiming down the scope of a rifle, right at Tanner’s head. He fires, hitting Tanner square in the head, and it’s over. Tanner slumps lifelessly forward, blood pooling in the ground at his feet. There’s no drawn-out, blaze-of-glory death sequence. Just BANG, and he’s gone. Marcus leans against a rock and half-laughs, half-cries.

Meanwhile, Toby is able to pass a police checkpoint without incident, and heads to the casino to launder the money. He is sitting at the bar having a drink when he hears about Tanner’s death on the news on a TV behind him. He doesn’t even turn around to look at the TV, just raises his glass and silently takes a drink. Then he visits the bank, pays off his debts, and sets up a trust fund in his family’s name.

Some time later, Marcus visits his old office to talk with his replacement and get some closure on the Howards. He learns that the Texas Rangers have cleared Toby as a suspect, since his record is clean and he has no motive because the oil wells on his family’s property make more money in a month than what was stolen in all the bank robberies combined. The bank is also not cooperating with the investigation, since they don’t want to lose management of the family’s trust fund. The Rangers never got descriptions of the bank robbers, since the brothers wore hoods and masks to all their robberies, so Toby and his family are in the clear.

Although he has no proof and no authority, Marcus knows Toby was the brains of the operation. He visits Toby at the now-lucrative family ranch, and their conversation is fascinating. These two men have every reason to hate each other, but there’s no real sense of enmity between them. Just a grudging sort of respect. Marcus tells Toby that he knows Toby was the mastermind, and wants to know why. Toby is evasive, and this is when he says the line to Marcus that I quoted earlier, about how his family’s poverty won’t be passed down to his sons.

As Marcus gets up to leave and heads back to his car, Toby stops him.

“Hey,” he says.

Marcus turns around.

“I rent a little house in town,” Toby says. “If you wanna stop by and finish this conversation, you’re welcome anytime.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” Marcus replies. “Be seeing you.”

“Yeah,” Toby says. “Soon, I hope. I’m ready to be done with this.”

“You’ll never be done with it no matter what,” Marcus says. “It’s gonna haunt you, son, for the rest of your days. But you won’t be alone. It’s gonna haunt me too.”

“If you stop by,” Toby says, “Maybe I’ll give you peace.”

“Maybe,” Marcus agrees, nodding, then says “Maybe I’ll give it to you.” He turns away, gets in his car, and drives off. And that’s the end of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if that peace will come from a shared six-pack or the barrel of a shotgun.

Who wins? Toby provides for his family, but at the cost of several deaths, including that of his own brother. As Marcus says, he’s just going to have to live with that for the rest of his life. Marcus kills one of the robbers, but he’ll never be able to nab the man he knows is the second one, and his best friend was killed before Marcus was able to tell him how much he valued him. And while Tanner’s motives are questionable and his behavior is frequently deplorable, in the end he gives his life for his brother, and there is no greater sacrifice.

With most movies I see, there are pros and cons. But while the pros of Hell or High Water could fill a book, when I think about cons, I can’t come up with a single one. It’s damn near perfect. It’s tense, relatable, wryly funny, deeply moving, and the writing, acting, and directing are superb. It’s an achingly human story and its characters and their relationships are profoundly real. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016, including Best Picture, and while it didn’t win any of them I’m glad it was recognized. Chris Pine has never been better, nobody plays a crusty Texas Ranger better than Jeff Bridges (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and the supporting work from Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham is commendable, as is the rest of the supporting cast.

It’s a tremendous movie. Oddly, the back of the film’s Blu-ray package lists the film’s running time as 122 minutes, when it’s actually 102 minutes. The fact that the movie does what it does in such a relatively brief amount of time is extraordinary. There are plenty of big blockbusters with ten or even twenty times the budget that are 45 minutes longer, and don’t have nearly as much pathos as this film does.

Image: Lionsgate

See it. It’s unforgettable.

Also unforgettable (albeit for entirely different reasons) is the movie I’ll be talking about next week. It’s the weirdest movie of 2017 and one of the weirdest movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It’s a twisted tale full of slithering eels and dark secrets. It’s Gore Verbinski’s bizarro fright flick A Cure For Wellness. See you next week!