‘Hell Or High Water’ Runs Deep

by Alex Ward on August 19, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

David Mackenzie’s excellent Hell Or High Water marks another high point in a growing list of recent contemporary Westerns. Its exploration of the genre themes of loyalty, honor, revenge and redemption is arguably the most fully realized and powerful since the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men.

The synopsis doesn’t sound entirely intriguing on paper: Set in modern day West Texas, Hell Or High Water is the story of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) embarking on a string of robberies to raise money to save their family farm from bank foreclosure. Throw in a retiring Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges, in full True Grit cowboy mode) working one last job, and you’ve got yourself a script straight out of Screenwriting 101.

But from its nerve-racking opening, through a series of darkly comedic bank heists, and all the way to its quiet climax, Hell Or High Water is a tightly constructed film that smartly tweaks Western tropes while leaving viewers exhilarated.

The movie opens on a shot of graffiti scrawled outside a bank reading “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for us,” an early indicator that much like Andrew Dominik’s neo-noir crime thriller Killing Them Softly, the economic setting of this movie will prove to be just as important as the physical. The economically devastated region of West Texas is riddled with huge billboards asking “In Debt?” and promising “Fast Cash.”

It’s a risky move for director Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) to confront these economic concerns so directly, but rarely do the images of shuttered storefronts or talk of economic hardships come off as heavy-handed. Instead, they’re an integral part of the story and a believable catalyst as to why a good man like Toby would desperately turn to a life of crime.

Both Chris Pine and Ben Foster give excellent performances. The two actors have a natural chemistry as they gradually reveal their onscreen characters’ estranged relationship and troubled past. They ably convey the acceptance of living a life of constant disappointment, even as they long for a better life for Toby’s wife and kids. Foster has made a career of disappearing into quirky characters, and his Tanner is a tightly-wound and dangerous counterpart to straight-laced Toby.

Jeff Bridges gives a reliably soulful performance as retiring Texas Ranger Marcus, and his banter with partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) provides some of the movies biggest laughs and heart.

But the real revelation is Pine in the role of good-hearted younger brother Toby. Fresh off another fine (if somewhat tired) showing in last month’s Star Trek Beyond, Pine surprises with his most mesmerizing performance to date. Gone is the cocky confidence of Captain Kirk, his leading-man looks buried beneath thick layers of desert dust, sweat, and a permanent slouch. The actor’s natural charisma is suppressed to quietly devastating effect: Toby comes from a long life of hardship and struggle, where being poor “is like a disease passing from generation to generation.”

In these poor West Texas towns (captured in gorgeously bleak cinematography), robbing banks isn’t just a means to an end for Toby — bank heists might just be the only way his family can escape from a perpetual cycle of poverty.

It’s a nice touch that so many of the background characters Ranger Marcus interviews during his police investigation are reluctant to help him. These small-town Texans, many of whom have also been victimized by unfair economic forces, seem sympathetic to the the brothers’ plight. They’re secretly rooting for Toby and Tanner as modern day Robin Hoods, men who are stealing back from the banks that stole so much from them. As long as nobody’s getting hurt, the bank robbers are no more villainous than the robbing banks.

But inevitably people will get hurt: This is a Western, and there’s no escaping the inevitable shootout. The strength of Hell Or High Water is that when the dust settles, the movie will have you wondering who the good guys really are.

Chicago by way of small-town Kansas. Owner of 2 adequate cats.

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