Film Review: Hell or High Water

by Carrie Kahn on August 12, 2016

Bridges, Pine anchor riveting western crime drama

Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, l.) and Toby (Chris Pine) come up with a plan to save their family’s West Texas farm.

Actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan proved he had a knack for conveying the rhythms and feeling of the American southwest with his award-nominated debut feature screenplay for last year’s gritty drug smuggling crime drama Sicario. The success of that debut was no fluke, as we see here in Hell or High Water, Sheridan’s new, follow up screenplay. A similarly southwest-set blend of western and crime drama, the picture rivals the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men as a modern day, quintessentially American morality tale.

Directed by David Mackenzie, a Brit with a remarkable understanding of the West Texas landscape, Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers on a mission to save their family’s West Texas farm, soon to be lost to a bank lien after their mother’s death unless they can quickly come up with the necessary cash. Younger brother Tanner (Foster), recently released from prison, is no stranger to bank robbery, and convinces his more straight-laced, former natural gas driller older brother Toby (Pine) that the best way to get the money is via a few speedy and easy bank jobs. Hit a few small branches of the bank that holds the lien, take only the small bills in the drawers, and they can be on their way, raising a few grand without anyone getting hurt, Tanner insists.

Of course, being set in Texas, Tanner’s plan quickly devolves, as a bank customer with a gun tries to be hero, and the brothers are forced to react. Aside from being a first-rate thriller, this movie also not so subtly becomes an amazingly effective on-screen argument against allowing concealed weapons, and blows holes (literally) in the “being armed makes us safer” theory that NRA supporters like to espouse.

Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges, l.) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are hot on the trail of the bank robbing brothers.

But back to the action. On the run now, the brothers’ goal is to make their appointment to pay off the lien, “come hell or high water,” as the bank officer tells them. Trying to thwart the brothers are two Texas Rangers: the irascible Marcus (Jeff Bridges), who, naturally, is days from retiring, and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a Texan of Native American and Mexican heritage. It’s a testament to Sheridan’s sharp script and Bridges’s and Birmingham’s acting that the film makes this “odd couple” partner trope fresh; the teasing and sparring between the two men masks genuine professional appreciation and personal affection, and their scenes are some of the best written, best acted, and funniest in the movie.

Mackenzie deftly contrasts the Rangers’ slow, methodic investigation and stake out with the brothers’ frantic scrambling; the tension is always palpable and nerve wracking, causing the audience to alternatively root for the Rangers and the brothers as the scenes and point of view shift. Marcus and Toby, the smarter and more clear eyed of the two brothers, become the picture’s main adversaries, and their cat and mouse game unfolds in a manner reminiscent of Javert and Jean Valjean; while on opposite sides of the law, the two come to respect and understand each other and their motivations. If Sam Shepard had written Victor Hugo’s classic characters, they might have looked a little something like Marcus and Toby.

The Shepard comparison is also apt, since, similar to so much of his work, the western landscape itself becomes almost another character here. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, a Brit like Mackenzie, captures the dusty, long, lonely roads, vast grass fields, and endless open skies of the west in exquisitely beautiful, haunting shots. The picture was actually not filmed in Texas at all, but in various New Mexico locations (including near Clovis and Alamogordo), but the effect is the same. Nuttgens’s long takes of the brothers driving past billboards advertising foreclosures, debt relief, and going-out-of business sales underscore the film’s themes of an economy fast becoming untenable for small farmers and ranchers who have been on the land for generations, resulting in a dying way of life in America’s small towns.

Marin Ireland plays Debbie, Toby’s ex wife.

Pine shows remarkable range here, clearly trying to branch out and distance himself from his Captain Kirk bravado. His sensitive and nuanced performance as a divorced father trying to do right by his sons and ex wife (Marin Ireland, subtly perceptive in just a few scenes) contrasts nicely with Foster’s portrayal of the hot headed, reactionary Tanner. And Bridges takes a role that could have easily become a caricature and instead brings to Marcus dignity, compassion, and a weary humor that allows Bridges to create one of his most indelible characters to date.

A terrific original soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis also complements and enhances the picture’s melancholy tone. As the summer blockbuster season begins to recede, let’s hope that Mackenzie and Sheridan’s picture is a harbinger of other smart, compelling, unique adult dramas to come this fall. If even a few more are of this quality, we have a lot to look forward to.

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Hell or High Water opens today at the AMC Metreon and Sundance Kabuki theaters, and will expand to more Bay Area theaters next Friday.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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