The heroic quest is probably the oldest form in the history of human storytelling. Two recent movies—Travis Knight’s Kubo
and the Two Strings and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water—demonstrate the vitality of that ancient model, by telling stories that are diametrically
opposed to each other in purpose and content yet which both dazzle us with their brilliance.
A masterpiece of stop-motion animation, Kubo and the Two Strings begins with a beautiful Japanese woman braving a terrifying storm at
sea in a fragile boat. A decade or so later, we see that woman again living as a hermit in a cave, with only her small one-eyed son Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art
Parkinson) for company. Each day Kubo goes out to the village with his two-string shamisen to earn money. He entertains the villagers with the story of Hanzo, his
heroic samurai father, bringing the story to life by conjuring origami characters that are as amazing as anything in the film.
Kubo’s mother gives him only one edict: he must be home before nightfall every day. One day, however, Kubo makes such a hit
with the crowd that he stays after dark. Danger comes immediately in the form of Kubo’s evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara),
sorceresses with painted-doll faces who come to steal Kubo’s remaining eye as a gift for their father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
After the attack, Kubo must flee, to search for three magical pieces of armor his father owned. These, his mother told him,
will protect him from the diabolical magic of his grandfather and aunts. His companion on his quest is a scold of a monkey
(Charlize Theron), derived from a talisman his mother always made him carry. A little later, they are joined by Beetle (Matthew
McConaughey), a dimwitted former samurai who was transformed into an insect.
From this point, it is unfair to tell you anything about the plot of Kubo and the Two Strings. The film’s middle section drags
somewhat as far as story goes, causing it to be just a little less than perfect. That is a minor quibble, however, when the visual
glories come so thick and fast. We see awe-inspiring winter and spring landscapes, vast subterranean caverns, undersea battles
that keep us on the edge of our seats. And this is not CGI, or even traditional animation, but stop-action. I had no idea this
form of animation could be so fluid or natural. Two set pieces stand out: one in which fallen leaves swirl on a beach, forming
themselves into a mighty warship, and one in which a giant skeleton, hundreds of feet high, rises from the dark earth.
Some critics have accused Knight of whitewashing, and indeed the only two voice actors of Japanese descent—George Takei and
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa—are relegated to minor roles. Yet this is minor compared with what he and his crew at Laika Studios gets right. Not only is Kubo and the Two Strings magnificent to see,
but the later sections of its story approach classic fairy-tale status. The film provides some good belly laughs, but its overall thrust
is melancholy, as it stresses that loss is an inexorable part of life, and that love and memory are the only things that truly make us human. Kubo and the Two Strings is probably too sad for very
small children, but their older siblings—and certainly their parents—will respond to its beauty and its poignant message of hope.
Hell or High Water, in contrast, presents hope as a futile, even
silly emotion. “I never met nobody who got away with anything ever,” says Tanner (Ben Foster), one of the movie’s major
characters, and this is as good an epigraph as any for the entire film.
Hell or High Water throws us brutally into the action, beginning with two ski-masked bank robbers holding up a West Texas bank
just as it opens in the morning. The robbers are Tanner and his brother Toby (Chris Pine), two hard-luck guys whose family ranch
is about to be foreclosed. Their scheme is to buy a succession of junker cars, rob the banks (only the branches of one particular
bank), use their backhoe to bury the cars on their property, and pay off the mortgage with money from the very bank that holds
the mortgage. Theirs is a clever variation on the traditional Western outlaw quest, though I hesitate to call it a heroic one.
There is much more to their scheme, but I will not reveal it here. What mostly interests us, anyway, is the relationship between the
brothers. Tanner, outwardly the wilder of the two, is so impulsive that he can’t resist interrupting his lunch to rob the bank across
the street. Toby, smarter and more deliberative, has never broken the law before, but no longer sees the percentage in being
a law-abiding citizen. Nothing has ever worked out for Toby, not even love; when he sees his ex-wife, all they can do is stare at
each other in exhausted disappointment. Toby’s closest human connection by far is with Tanner, even though Tanner has spent
most of his adult life in prison. The phrase they use most often with each other is, “Go fuck yourself.”
Toby and Tanner’s relationship is mirrored in the friendship between the men who are hunting them: Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a
wily old Texas Ranger facing mandatory retirement, and his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
Marcus and Alberto are obviously close, even though Marcus’ main method of addressing Alberto is through a succession of
Indian jokes that Alberto doesn’t always find funny. Alberto defends himself by making old-age jokes to Marcus. “Do you
want to hear about these bank robbers, or just sit and let the Alzheimer’s take its course?” he says at one point.
It is hard to say who we like better—Toby and Tanner, or Marcus and Alberto—as the second pair pursues the first through a
landscape littered with junkyards, closed businesses and billboards advertising debt relief. However, in a place where gun
ownership is considered a birthright, we already know the situation will turn spectacularly bad. The resulting tragedy leads
to the final showdown between Marcus and Toby, which I will not describe here. Suffice it to say that there is no town in the
Universe, indeed no Universe, big enough for both Marcus and Toby.
Taylor Sheridan’s superb screenplay presents a modern Texas that hasn’t changed appreciably from the days of the Alamo,
except for the technology available to the lawmen and the outlaws. At a convenience store parking lot, a cowboy on a horse shares
space with a couple of gun-toting punks in a muscle car, their radio blaring rap.
Hell or High Water also leaves you in no doubt as to the identity of the true outlaws. When Marcus and Alberto ask a witness to
one of Toby and Tanner’s robberies how long he had been at the scene, the old man replies, “Long enough to see the bank gettin’
robbed that’s been robbin’ me for thirty years.” It’s as if John Ford decided to make a combined remake of The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath.
The ongoing tension between whites and Native Americans is also a running theme in Hell or High Water. At an Indian casino,
Tanner has a run-in with a towering, belligerent Comanche.
“You know what ‘Comanche’ means?” the Comanche says. “It means, ‘Enemies with Everyone.’”
“You know what that makes me?” Tanner asks.
“It makes you an enemy.”
“It makes me a Comanche.”
If you have the impression that the dialogue in Hell or High Water is some of the best in recent memory, you’re right. Also
rest assured that it contains some of the best acting in any recent movie. You already know going in that Jeff Bridges is going to be
wonderful; he slips into Marcus’ skin as if it were a pair of custom-made boots. You might be less certain of Chris Pine, but you
shouldn’t be. Pine’s Toby might be as laconic and deadpan as any of the cowboys on screen, but there’s a world of hurt in those eyes.
Ben Foster made a spectacular impression as a gunslinger in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma. As excellent as that performance
was, he is even better here, his Tanner so crazily likable that you can’t quite believe just how easily he kills. Gil Birmingham brings
an impressive, thoughtful dignity to Alberto, especially in his speech toward the middle about who owns the land, and who stole it.
Then again, everybody is great in Hell or High Water, down to the smallest bit part. I particularly liked an actress named
Margaret Bowman, playing a small-town steakhouse waitress who starts by asking every customer, “What don’t you want?”
Although everyone involved with Hell or High Water deserves
praise, the film’s music score deserves to be singled out. The fine original music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is seasoned
with country classics by such performers as Townes Van Zandt, Gillian Welch, Billy Joe Shaver and Chris Stapleton, whose
“Outlaw State of Mind” is the perfect closing number for the film.
It isn’t often that you get to see a movie you know is a masterpiece before you’ve sat through the first ten minutes. Last
year, for me, it was Spotlight; the year before that,
Boyhood. This year, I’ve been privileged to see two: Atom Egoyan’s Remember, which has been shamefully neglected, and Hell or High Water, which has received near-unanimous critical
praise but a sparse box office. Here’s hoping that audiences will finally catch on to both movies, but especially Hell or High Water, as impressive a Western as has been made in any cinematic era.
It’s a persuasive reminder of Faulkner’s dictum that the past isn’t dead, or even past.