Ben Foster

Hell or High Water

When we think about interesting movie settings, we might think of some exotic locale, perhaps a far off land – maybe a jungle or the base of a volcano. But great cinematic landscapes don’t have to be on the other side of the world. Sometimes an effective movie setting is one that is rarely depicted, but not so far away. Such was the case for Hell or High Water, an enthralling film capturing a slice of southwestern America. The Texas setting lent itself surprisingly well to the story of two brothers who chart a dangerous course through the Bible Belt.

When we meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, The Finest Hours) they are brazenly robbing a small bank. Inexperienced but resourceful, the pair is bumbling in their execution but genius in their foresight. Tanner is fiery and violent, while Toby is sympathetic and measured, each the perfect foil. Inevitably, the siblings soon draw the ire of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, True Grit), a small town sheriff near retirement (a familiar trope, I know). He and his partner begin tracking the duo, mapping their likely targets, surmising that they are stealing small amounts to reach a modest, specific goal. If they can determine the motive, perhaps they can narrow in on a suspect.

Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) weave an atmospheric tale permeating with desperate energy. Toby and Tanner are just a half step ahead of the law, and it could all come crumbling down at any moment. As their motivation for the robberies is revealed, we feel the weight of their burden. A sense of foreboding hangs like a cloud over the film, hinting that the pair is on borrowed time. Many viewers will probably relate to the movie’s themes, particularly the brothers’ sense of frustration at the seemingly short hand life has dealt them, always a day late and a dollar short. Blue-collar, working class, somewhat marginalized and essentially impoverished.

The film was reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ work, with cinematography and setting similar to both No Country For Old Men and Blood Simple. I could also see Sheridan’s hand reflected in the story, which bore cinematic similarity to his work in Sicario. The Texas landscape was grimy and hot, and their desperation was palpable. Perhaps I shouldn’t have rooted for them, but I did – which is a testament to the film’s story and two leads. Foster and Pine gave textured performances, evincing wide-ranging emotion. While there has been praise from critics, the average moviegoer may be reluctant to see this film – but don’t be one of those people. Hell or High Water has been one of the better films of 2016, so far. Grade: A

Lone Survivor

Some of the finest contributions to 20th century film have captured the brutality and complexity of war, showing both its devastating psychological consequences and the savagery of battle.  From Apocalypse Now to Full Metal Jacket to Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood has brought us some incredible showcases of war.  Most of the war movies I’ve seen were set during the Vietnam War, but the Civil War and World Wars 1 and 2 have been represented, among others.  While the jungle of Vietnam is a familiar backdrop, few movies have depicted the mountainous terrain of the more recent war in Afghanistan until now.  Lone Survivor tells the real life account of a group of SEALS who fought courageously in pursuit of high-profile Taliban ally Ahmad Shah in 2005.

Actor/director Peter Berg (Battleship) dramatizes the events of Operation Red Wing, a military action in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of all but one SEAL, lone survivor Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg, 2 Guns).  Let me preface by saying that any criticism I have is from a purely cinematic perspective; I am thankful for the men and women who serve our country and understand full well the incredible sacrifice that was made in that military operation.  I’m only discussing Berg’s interpretation of what happened, and I found the film mostly effective.  He opens the movie with ostensibly real footage of the grueling preparation endured by all SEALS, revealing the unique fortitude required of the men who carry out some of our most dangerous military operations.

We are introduced to the unit in Afghanistan, and the prevailing mood is one of fraternal camaraderie. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, Savages), Danny Deitz (Emile Hirsch, Savages), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster, Contraband) join Luttrell, and the band of brothers couldn’t be any closer.  When they are apprised of the mission, it’s go time.  Luttrell, Murphy, Axe and Deitz are embedded in the mountainous terrain, and soon locate their target Shah.  They are hidden in dry foliage when a local goat herder and two boys stumble upon them.  In a pivotal moment that ultimately determines their fate, Lieutenant Mike Murphy must decide whether they let the party go on their way, detain them, or eliminate them all together.

When Murphy releases the party, they promptly alert Shah and his well-armed band of locals to the soldiers’ presence.  A firefight ensues, followed by an extended and gut-wrenching battle, as the SEALS are outgunned and perilously exposed.  They suffer devastating injuries, including broken legs, shrapnel, and bullet wounds.  It was nearly unbearable to watch, including one scene where they literally hurl themselves over a cliff, tumbling down the mountain as bone meets rock.  The human body and the human spirit weren’t meant to endure such turmoil and trauma, and the viewer is constantly reminded that SEALS are simply cut from a different cloth.

Lone Survivor succeeded in its accuracy, but I can’t help but compare it to the previously mentioned standouts in the genre.  While it was effectively authentic, it was almost too straightforward.  There wasn’t much character or plot development, but I suppose that wasn’t Berg’s intention.  I think the goal of depicting Operation Red Wing was achieved, but I’m not sure this movie is emblematic of an era like the great Vietnam movies were.  However, the casting was excellent, with Wahlberg, Kitsch, and Foster masterfully capturing the bravery, courage and heroism of these real-life fallen soldiers.  Grade: B.


Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) has got to be one of the coolest actors around.  His career has only gotten better over the years, and I’ve always been a fan.  I think the first movie I remember seeing him in was Fear, and he showed flashes of greatness even back then.  He’s been nominated for an Academy Award, and I hope one day he’ll take one home.  He’s demonstrated that he can do more than play the tough guy, but that’s one of the roles in which he excels.

In Contraband he portrays a tough guy but a family man, a reluctant hero thrust into a situation beyond his control.  He stars as Chris Farraday, a reformed smuggler of illegal contraband.  Chris has gone straight, and is now the owner of a small home security company.  With his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld: Awakening) and two sons, he has carved out a nice normal existence.  That safe haven is threatened when his wife’s little brother Andy (Caleb Jones, X-Men: First Class) gets himself in trouble with local drug dealer and scumbag Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, The Rum Diary).  He was transporting cocaine on a cargo ship when it was busted by border patrol and he had to dump the product in the water.  Instead of chalking up the loss to the cost of doing business, Briggs will extract his debt in blood.  In an effort to save Andy’s life, Chris assumes the debt.  The only way he can repay what Andy owes is by agreeing to do a smuggling job for Briggs.  His best friend Sebastien (Ben Foster, The Mechanic) helps arrange the job and also keeps an eye on Kate and the boys while Chris is gone.

Contraband was successful because of its straightforward plot and relatable performances.  Even though the average person will never find themselves thrust into such a dangerous situation, there are few forces more powerful than self-preservation and the need to protect one’s family.  Initially Chris is focused on saving the life of his brother-in-law, but eventually his wife and children become the object of Briggs’ vengeful rage.  As a viewer, I never doubted Wahlberg’s resolve.  Maybe it was his blue-collar Boston roots shining through that made the performance so believable.  Additionally, he and Kate Beckinsale had great chemistry and their performances were delivered with remarkable realism, particularly Kate’s frustration with her brother.  Sometimes your family puts you in the worst position, but you never turn your back on them.  Beckinsale, Jones, and Wahlberg captured the unconditional love that characterizes the bond between family.

It looks like the movie will end up being #1 at the box office, and I think it’s a worthy entrant at that position, though it will probably be a short-lived stay at the top.  It wasn’t a terribly original movie, but that’s ok.  I mean, we’ve seen the overall plot of man saving his family about a million times, but Contraband was exciting and intense and kept me on the edge of my seat. You really can’t ask for much more from a thriller.  I particularly enjoyed the clever way Chris managed to evade authorities while loading the contraband on the boat.  A lot of movies falter at the halfway point, but writer Aaron Guzikowski crafted a storyline that started strong and maintained its intensity throughout.  Contraband had a throwback B-movie vibe that ultimately proved successful, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

This article first appeared at Poptimal at on Contraband’s opening weekend, and was reprinted with permission.