Sometimes, it really is just an honor to be nominated.
My guilty confession? I secretly love the Academy Awards. Oh, not because of the ceremony or the fashion or the thrill of competition; most years I don’t even watch the live broadcast, let alone the red carpet events that take place beforehand. No, I love the Academy Awards because it’s the one time of year that my wife demands that we sit down and watch a bunch of movies together. Every February, she and her parents engage in a friendly little competition to see who can watch each of the Best Picture nominees, and that means we get to spend somewhere between five and ten date nights at the movie theater. Gosh, honey, if we must, we must.
Take Hell or High Water. This is the kind of movie that she would never see otherwise, an ambling contemporary western with shocking bursts of extreme violence. In a lot of ways, Hell or High Water moves more like a direct-to-video thriller than a prestige drama. Most of the film plays out in a lazy approximation of real-time; the story seems almost apologetic for its backstory, leaving us to piece together the relationships and timelines of each character for ourselves. While we quickly figure out that Toby has spearheaded this series of bank robberies to pay off his mother’s property, we don’t discover the cause of his urgency until about two-thirds of the way through the film. This is not an indictment of its writing, but rather, an acknowledgement of its differences. Hell or High Water has very little in common with the self-contained narratives of many other Academy Award nominees.
What the film does have is dynamite performances to spare. Chris Pine has always been a character actor trapped inside the body of a leading man – look no further than his collaborations with Joe Carnahan in Smokin’ Aces and Stretch for proof of this – and here his good looks are hidden away behind a handlebar mustache that only accentuates his status as a Desperate Dude. Ben Foster, often relegated to the sidelines of big-budget films, finds just the right balance of anger and fatalism in his performance as Pine’s ultra-violent older brother. Jeff Bridges finds one last dusty curmudgeon worth his considerable talents in Marcus Hamilton, the film’s gently belligerent Javert to Pine’s Jean Valjean.
And while I may be thrilled that we both got to enjoy the film together – she really liked it, despite my spoiling a few plot points over the summer when we assumed it would never be nominated and she would never watch it otherwise – I’m not exactly kidding myself that Hell or High Water has a realistic shot at Oscar glory. Even if the film offered a more conventional take on a crime thriller, it would still not be enough to rise above its competition. If you’re a fan of film as escapism and an overt celebration of the medium, there’s the buoyant charm of Damien Chazzelle’s La La Land. If you’re of the persuasion that film should be political and a commentary on the human condition, then you might be drawn to Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Each film offers a more direct conduit for its specific charms than Hell or High Water, meaning that David Mackenzie’s film is in the somewhat-enviable position of just being happy to be nominated.
From a financial standpoint, being nominated is no small thing. In 2013, Business Insider shared some numbers on the financial impact of an Oscar nomination before, during, and after Academy Award consideration. The research they looked at showed that an Academy Award nomination can cause ticket sales to spike by approximately one-third, with the impact being felt both after the nominations are announced and after the awards are handed out. The same research also point to an increase in video rentals and VOD purchases during the same time period. And last year, Deadline took an in-depth look at the projected boost in sales for several of the Best Picture nominees, with Room, The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight, and Brooklyn averaging an estimated 94% boost in ticket sales between being nominated and the Academy Awards broadcast.
We’ve also seen the secondary nominees of previous years become major cultural touch points for the industry going forward. In 2015, for example, Mad Max: Fury Road was both a crowd favorite and unlikely to take home the big prize, but the film quickly became a cultural firebrand for both cinematic and political reasons, giving it more social relevance than that year’s overtly political Best Picture winner, Spotlight. The same for Selma in 2015. Many critics treated its nomination as a face-saving gesture by the Academy; it had none of the down-ballot nominations we associate with a true Best Picture contender, and some Academy voters even publicly acknowledged their distaste for the politics surrounding the film. But while Spotlight may be no slouch, Selma has not only improved upon repeat viewings, it has also brought well-deserved attention to director Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young.
So no, Hell or High Water is not going to win Best Picture this year, but I’d wager that the film will have a bigger impact on Hollywood than several of its competitors. It’s a film deeply rooted in the American housing crisis of the last decade; as evidenced by his directorial non-debut at this past month’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s also the film that elevated screenwriter Taye Sheridan from the ranks of up-and-coming talent to bankable behind-the-scenes star. Long after the memories of people screaming at each other about La La Land fade from my brain, I’ll remember the anguished roar from Jeff Bridges as he sets down his rifle or the way neither Howard boy can quite make eye contact when they confess their brotherly love. And maybe not being a serious contender is a relief: we don’t have to tear it down or try to poke holes in it, we can just love it for what it is. I’ll drink a Shiner to that.