By Brad Haynes
Hell Or High Water
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★
Hell or High Water, the new film from director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), initially appears as a revisionist take on the classic Western (good guys/bad guys, cowboys/Indians) but it is so much more. And once it truly digs in it’s bound to remind you of several other cinematic classics as well.
The film starts with brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard pulling off a bank robbery in a sleepy West Texas town. In fact the town is so sleepy (something that at times becomes hard to believe that these towns can be so poorly populated, yet still support a bank) that it is a simple task of using a little force and getting away with what they came for.
It soon becomes clear that their target, the Texas Midlands Bank chain, has been chosen for more than just the apparent ease with which it takes to burgle them. The mother of the boys, now dead from cancer, had a family farm which will soon be taken by the bank unless the reverse mortgage can be paid off and the boys, who couldn’t be more different than each other, are intent on getting that money from the exact same place where it will be returned.
Foster’s Tanner is a hot head ex-con, in it just as much for the excitement of the heist as for the ultimate goal of saving the family farm. Pine’s Toby is in it for completely different reasons. It’s the only way that he knows to save the family farm and offer it up to his estranged wife and two boys so that they will be taken care of, at least when it comes to housing, for the rest of their lives.
Once the first robbery occurs though, a pair of Texas Rangers jump on the case. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a weathered ranger nearing retirement and seeing this as one last job before the front porch beckons. He’s assisted by Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a younger ranger of both Indian and Mexican descent. His heritage provides Hamilton with plenty of fodder for teasing. They’re definitely an odd couple with one goal in mind: apprehending the thieves.
Hell or High Water has plenty of twists and turns as the cat and mouse game swings into high gear and the acting is uniformly superb. Both Foster and Pine bring their characters fully to life and the love between the two, no matter how different they may be, is always fully evident.
But the movie truly belongs to Bridges, who could very well find himself vying for an Academy Award once again with his turn as Hamilton. Aided by the wisecracks supplied by Sheridan’s witty script, Bridges thoroughly becomes the character (which could easily be an extension of his youthful character from another sleepy Texas classic, 1971’s The Last Picture Show). When he’s on the screen it’s hard to take your eyes away and when Bridges and Pine meet up for the ultimate showdown later in the film, both actors are vibrant.
Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is gorgeous, delivering a dusty, sepia-toned hue to the West Texas landscape (actually filmed in New Mexico).
It’s a violent film, which is only one of the ways that it seems to be an odd extension of another Robin Hood-esque gangter saga, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Just as in that film, when the violence arrives it is with gritty realism that truly stuns. There’s nothing romantic about the violence encountered here. But oddly enough, it is a beautiful film nonetheless, and a film which should serve as this summer’s true sleeper hit.
The Good: Incredible acting from Pine, Foster, Bridges and the entire cast, plus a riveting story line, make Hell Or High Water one of the year’s best.
The Bad: Some of the small-town Texas isolation seems a little far-fetched in today’s day and age.
Final Word: Bridges has never been better and Pine proves that he’s far more than just a pretty boy who can commandeer the Starship Enterprise. The film may end up flying under your radar, but be sure to make an effort to check it out.
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham. Directed by David Mackenzie.
Running Time: 1 hr 42 minutes
Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.