Fringe dwellers

Updated: 2017-04-07 07:03

By Elizabeth Kerr(China Daily)

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It makes perfect sense that in this day and age of the banker or CEO as movie villain and stories of corporate arrogance regular fodder for everything from drama to horror, that those who have been marginalized by those same elements would eventually have their starring moments. Hell or High Water and Trespass Against Us are similar films in many ways: both hinge on simmering rebellion, utter disaffection with the system, and men facing down the anonymous machinations of the contemporary world that prevent them from living life in peace, ideas brought into stark relief in recent years by so much financial misery.

Admittedly it's a uniquely (for now) Western conundrum; Asia has its own dynamics, and much of this rebellion is rooted in a loss of status. Regardless, a new spotlight has been turned onto white, middle-class disillusionment. In David Mackenzie's spare but loaded Hell or High Water, Texas brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) hatch an ironic plan to rob a series of Texas Midlands banks in order to raise enough cash to save the family ranch from foreclosure - by the same bank. Their crime spree attracts the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) ahead of retirement, and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The Howard boys accomplish their goal, but not without a great deal of tragedy on all sides.

Similarly, Adam Smith's Trespass Against Us sees Chad Cutler (Michael Fassbender) trapped within the confines of his family's outlaw status. The Colbys, living in a loose trailer community in Gloucestershire, make a living robbing the historic houses nearby. Chad knows he's going nowhere, and wants to remove his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and their kids, particularly Tyson (Georgie Smith), from the life. Family patriarch Colby (Brendan Gleeson), however, won't have that.

Trespass is the kind of artistic, lo-fi experiment that doesn't happen without Fassbender and Gleeson. Both do admirable jobs of humanizing the father and son, making their contempt with the world and feelings of otherness understandable, and Fassbender effortlessly balances his own apathy with frustration at seeing the seeds of it taking root in Tyson. Nonetheless, Smith fails to settle on an emotional and stylistic tone, toggling back and forth between sympathy for the Cutlers and scorn for them, leaving the sum of the film's parts adding up to very little. The family's place outside the law is underpinned by principled religious fervor one minute (Colby doesn't buy that evolution nonsense) and juvenile petulance the next (blatant disregard for the police). Smith and writer Alastair Siddons don't give us reason to empathize one way or the other, and they care even less about consistency. When Colby sabotages Chad's escape attempt it's hard to care, ditto for Kelly's blind support for the man she blames for trapping her children in a social purgatory.

On the other hand, in Hell or High Water Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) masterfully exploit the trappings of the western, with minimal gunplay, maximum narrative and fully realized characters. There isn't a wasted frame in the elegiac Water, demonstrated in the efficient, graceful opening moments that tell you all you need to know about this depressed corner of Texas. Sheridan has no interest in spelling out the situation Toby and Tanner are in, nor does he feel the need to itemize the predatory banking practices that drives the story. It's in every image of the dusty streets (gorgeously photographed by Giles Nuttgens). But it is the understated performances that carry the film. Bridges is doing his grizzled TexMex thing, and Foster is his reliable self, but Birmingham, as Marcus' Mexican-Comanche partner, and Pine, as the criminal mastermind, are the soul of the film. Veteran supporting player Birmingham is pitch perfect as Alberto, a man surrounded by passive-aggressive racism, and Pine proves there's more to him than sparkling blue eyes.