***1/2 out of ****
(for some strong violence, strong language throughout, and brief sexuality)
Released: August 12, 2016
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Ranked #9 on My Top 10 List For 2016
If the Western genre didn’t exist until the year 2016, it’d be Hell or High Water that invented it.
All the tropes are there: bank robbing brothers, Texas rangers, casinos as modern day saloons (from drinking to gambling to whoring), and chases to shoot’em ups to showdowns, all magnified by a state filled with gun-toting “open carry” citizens everywhere you turn.
Yet this is also more than a simple stylistic exercise (superb though it may be). Set in a modern day post-Great Recession West Texas where the Oil Drills are locked up and the small towns dried up, Hell or High Water works on a powerful thematic level about poverty. Reminiscent in a few ways of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, this seering portrait flirts with greatness and often achieves it (especially in the final act, when it really counts).
At its most pointed, Hell or High Water indicts institutions (in this case, a regional bank chain) that cunningly boost their bottom lines at the expense of down-on-their-luck people who are at their most vulnerable. The story is specific to the financial challenges of our times, but also to the generational curse of poverty that transcends and repeats across financial cycles.
Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) are brothers from a poor family with a troubled history. Now with the death of their mother and Tanner fresh out of jail, the two look to secure the family’s rundown ranch before a Texas bank takes possession of it by unethical (if legal) means.
Their plan for doing so: robbing branches of the bank chain trying to fleece them, and then use that money back toward the property. Toby’s never broken the law before, but he goes along with black sheep (and crazy wild card) Tanner’s scheme so as to guarantee the ranch for his sons. Suffice it to say, this disenfranchised Texan is so cornered by a system rigged against him that he feels driven to more high stakes action than slapping a Trump For President bumper sticker on his tailgate.
Hot on their trail is a crotchety old Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, in a more straight tweak of his True Grit quirk) who is days away from retirement, natch, and his younger Native American deputy partner. Hamilton’s brilliant at what he does, employing Sherlock-level powers of observation and deduction. He also casually flaunts an unassuming racism, mostly aimed in jokes at his Native American deputy, a trait that seems to permeate the general West Texas culture as well (and is instinctively expressed toward all non-Caucasians).
Foster brings an insane kick to a guy hell bent on crime (and possibly self-destruction); it’s very much in his wheelhouse. But it’s Pine who continues to be a revelation. His talents were (as I noted) both obvious and sorely underused in Star Trek Beyond, and this performance further proves that point. With an intense, brooding, but nuanced naturalism, Pine should be attracting more than franchise tentpole work as his career moves forward. There’s a lot of potential in this guy.
British indie director David Mackenzie builds on his critically-acclaimed career with this insightful, penetrating, and relevant work of gothic Americana. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who broke through last year with the screenplay to Sicario, offers up another slow-burn crime thriller that examines the toll of institutionalized corruption. Mackenzie’s style and Sheridan’s depth make for a vigorous collaboration.
As a genre narrative, the first half of Hell or High Water is compelling, largely due to the three central performances, if also a bit familiar. No new ground is necessarily broken, but it’s done extremely well. This good movie, however, builds to a spectacular and truly riveting climax. Both powerful and poignant (there’s some heavy duty gunplay here, all thoughtfully rendered), the film’s carefully layered themes cause the action to resonate on more than visceral surface levels.
And just when you think it’s over, Mackenzie and Sheridan add an extended epilogue that puts a thought-provoking stamp on the film’s ideas, issues, and actions of these two brothers. If Mackenzie ever makes an entire movie as potent as this film’s last act (climax and epilogue included), he may end up with a masterpiece on his hands.