Concealed carry towns are the worst places to rob banks. Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges star in Hell or High Water.
Director – David Mackenzie
Screenplay – Taylor Sheridan
Producer – Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken & Julie Yorn
Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout, and brief sexuality
Divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to save their family’s West Texas home – they’re gonna rob the branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their land. Things seem to be going pretty easy for them, too easy even, and Toby’s scheme to keep their stolen money hidden from the law manages to work like a charm as their get out of jail free card. Little do they know, however, that they have eventually come under the radar of veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). With the rangers on their heels, determined to bring the two to justice, the brothers find themselves in an impending showdown that will pit the Old and New West against each other.
On paper, Hell or High Water might seem like a retread of something you’d see the Coen brothers make, say No Country for Old Men, and in more than one way it sort of is – the Texas setting, the desolate backdrops, the poverty-striken neighborhoods and the old, grizzled veteran lawman going against the villains who are after money. Of course, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a high bar to reach, but I’d much rather a filmmaker aspire to the Coens than Michael Bay or Dennis Dugan. Thankfully, because of director David Mackenzie’s skillful direction and a strong, thematically rich script from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water not only works, it’s one of the strongest films of 2016.
While it may be billed as a thriller, Hell or High Water is more a crime drama with thriller elements sprinkled in. Mackenzie’s approach suits this material perfectly as he relishes the use of extended takes and long tracking shots, taking his time to let the suspense build in a slow-burn manner. Even with a shot that simply lingers, he and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens are able to generate tension better than any other billed thriller that’s been released this year. From one breathtaking shot to the next, Mackenzie turns the West Texas landscape (though set in West Texas, the film was actually shot in New Mexico) into as compelling a character as any other in the film, painting a bleak portrait of a section of America whose dreams and opportunities have crumbled away over time.
Writer Taylor Sheridan previously explored the brutal and unforgiving nature of the U.S. War on Drugs in last year’s Sicario, and here he once again has more on his mind than just cops and robbers. Hell or High Water explores themes of poverty and desperation, providing commentary on today’s economic climate without getting political or preachy. In a particularly poignant scene, one character, a half-Comanche cop talks of how his ancestors were driven out of their land over a century ago, and now the “white man” is being driven from their homes, but this time it’s the banks and foreclosures that’s driving them out. On top of the commentary, Sheridan also provides his script with a strong sense of the Texan way of life, from the effective use of gallows humor to the regional speak of the townsfolk (a great scene between Jeff Bridges, his law partner and an ornery waitress captures this best).
That and, seriously, robbing banks in a concealed carry town isn’t exactly the brightest idea.
Plus, it’s nice for once to get a couple of crooks who aren’t total idiots in regard to their plan. A lot of times you get films where the writers give us a heist that is either half-baked or doesn’t make a lick of sense. Here, not only does it make sense, it’s actually quite genius and genius in a way that’s believable coming from the two who are pulling it off.
Bring on the real-life copycats!
Of the many strengths this film possesses, the acting ranks at the top. For the past five years, it seems as if Jeff Bridges was in post-Oscar phoning it in mode with his garbled Bill Cosby-Jodie Foster-Holly Hunter had a baby voice (True Grit, R.I.P.D., Seventh Son and The Giver should’ve come with subtitles), but despite his recent duds, El Duderino has proven more than enough times of the world class actor he is. We’re once again reminded here of his world class talent in what is easily his best performance since his 2009 Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart (shared with the wonderful voice work he provided this year in The Little Prince). Bridges is understated greatness from beginning to end, channeling a laid-back demeanor that might get many viewers to immediately imagine The Dude if he became a Texas Ranger. Underneath that seemingly chill, slightly stubborn at times attitude, however, is an intelligence that’s slowing working out the details of his culprits’ plot.
As far as character actors go, Ben Foster is one of the best there is today, yet it’s unfortunate that he never manages to get placed in those best of conversations. Granted, at the beginning of his film career, it seemed like he was the go-to guy for playing the out-of-control misfit (The Punisher, Alpha Dog, Hostage, 3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night), but over the course of his career, he’s grown more and more as an actor (if you haven’t seen his terrific understated work in both The Messenger and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, please do so). Foster once again delivers another fantastic performance that further solidifies his standing as one of the best young character actors in the business. There’s a hot-tempered, screw-loose mentality to Tanner that Foster is able to do in his sleep, but there’s also layers of depth to his character, especially in the bond that he shares with his brother.
And speaking of that brother, Chris Pine turns in equally strong work as Toby, Tanner’s more level-headed brother/partner in crime. This isn’t the first time Pine has impressed me with a strong performance. His turn opposite Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor in last year’s Z for Zachariah proved he didn’t necessarily need the Star Trek brand to keep paying the bills, and his turn here, one that not only has him pairing up opposite Foster, but also going toe-to-toe against veteran Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges, further proves that case. The chemistry between him and Foster is on point, and both are able to capture their characters’ Texan cadence and swagger exceptionally well.
Though the film mostly centers around Bridges, Foster and Pine, the supporting actors aren’t cheated out of getting a moment or two to shine. Gil Birmingham is terrific as Bridges’s law partner who’s able to offer some keen insight into the investigation when he isn’t the butt of many of his partner’s jokes. Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman only pop up for no more than two scenes, but they make the most of their limited screen time, particularly scene-stealer Bowman as an ornery diner waitress.
It’s not just ’cause of the strong cast that even the smaller roles memorable are able to be memorable. Credit once again goes to Sheridan who wisely doesn’t treat his minor characters as caricatures. Often, writers and (or) directors fall prey to that or they gloss over them simply ’cause they feel they don’t matter much to the overall story, but thankfully, Sheridan and Mackenzie treat the minor roles with as much care and respect as their primary leads.
Hell or High Water doesn’t reinvent the Western and crime drama genres and it won’t take a rocket scientist to see the elements its borrowed from the Coen brothers. Still, what director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan do borrow, they execute so well, combining it with their own ideas to craft a thoroughly gripping heist thriller that exchanges mindless thrills in favor of thought-provoking themes and multi-dimensional characters. Add on to that, a first-rate cast delivering first-rate performances, and you have one of the finest films of the year.
I give Hell or High Water an A (★★★½).