Hell or High Water (2016)
102 min., rated R.
There is a bleak yet darkly funny tone coursing through the DNA of “Hell or High Water” that has echoes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s crime yarns, particularly “No Country for Old Men.” There is also a sense of desperation during hard times all over this "honor among thieves" heist western, capturing a socio-economical specificity in West Texas. Written by “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie (2014’s tough but electric prison drama “Starred Up”), the film is a post-modern western, not in the traditional sense where gunslinging cowboys duel outside of a saloon but in its existence as a bank-robbery thriller that actually has it in for the banks. With as much bite as a rattlesnake but leavened with a retained levity and humanity, “Hell or High Water” is resolute and smartly told, a cinematic high point of the summer.
Divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his impulsive older brother, ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), rob bank branches in a string of sleepy Texas towns. Their long-suffering mama died a few weeks ago and they have a mortgage on their family’s West Texas ranch to pay off before the banks foreclose on it. Getting into a crime-spree groove, the brothers pick up a new getaway car for each robbery and bury it afterwards. Meanwhile, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled Texas ranger nearing retirement, takes the case and gets on the Howard brothers’ trail with the accompaniment of his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). With the bank-robbing brothers’ temperaments not quite coinciding, Tanner goes against Toby’s better judgment of robbing one last bank—a bigger one—but it might be the one fatal mistake in their otherwise well-thought-out plan.
“Hell or High Water” doesn’t drill for anything new, but it is soundly crafted in what it does so well with its genre influences. Narratively straightforward and thematically complex, the film aims for uncompromising resolutions over corkscrew plot twists and is even more ruminative for it. On both sides of the law but with major layers of gray, there are two male relationships that run parallel throughout — Tanner and Toby, and Marcus and Alberto. Ben Foster, always quite the fascinating live-wire, is such a chameleonic character actor that he can belong in any story, modern or period. Here, as wild-card brother Tanner, Foster revels in the part and manages to bring more than enough fallibly human shadings and humor to an archetype that he could by now play on cruise control. It is Chris Pine, though, as Toby, the calm, cool and collected brains of this sibling operation who proves his growing versatility as an actor. Counterbalancing mainstream blockbusters (“Star Trek Beyond”) with smaller fare like “Z for Zachariah” and this modest $3.5-million effort, Pine is more than just a handsome leading man. This time, there is a quiet thoughtfulness and an aggressive fire in his belly that is well-suited to the actor’s strengths. Though his moral compass is steadier than his brother's, Toby is flawed and knows it, as he even tells one of his sons to believe what he hears and to not be like him and Uncle Tanner. A marble-mouthed Jeff Bridges is excellent as Marcus Hamilton, being handed some sharp, witty lines, while delivering on-target character work and still holding onto a little of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” Despite the slurs that ignorantly erupt from Marcus’ mouth, Bridges and Gil Birmingham (quite good, too, as Alberto) share a playfully amusing partner interplay that grows into more of a friendship.
In its careful and laconic form of filmmaking and director David Mackenzie’s fondness for long takes, there is an admirably elegiac quality to “Hell or High Water.” In tandem, the pacing is never in a rush but still moves forward with little predictability. As a result of getting to know where Toby and Tanner come from and what their current situation is, the viewer actually begins to root for them to get away with the robberies. Shooting in New Mexico as an acceptable stand-in for West Texas, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens not only captures the beautiful but unforgiving vastness and flatness of Texas but also the textured, lived-in details of the small towns within. There is a memorable bit in a T-bone restaurant with a no-bullshit spitfire of a crusty waitress, played by veteran bit player Margaret Bowman (she has played “Del Rio Motel Clerk” in “No Country for Old Men” and “Townsperson” in “Bernie”). Katy Mixon (TV's "Mike & Molly") also has a great couple of scenes as financially strapped waitress Jenny Ann who’s given a portion of the brothers’ money as a tip by Toby and won’t give it up to Ranger Hamilton as evidence. Director Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan seem to bring out the best in one another that perhaps a follow-up in any genre would do the cinematic universe some good. Their story doesn’t always go in ways the viewer expects and they manage to say something about the status quo without belaboring the point.
Grade: B +