With intense performances from its great cast, David Mackenzie’s neo-Western is an effective combination of adrenaline, humor and melancholy

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016)

Di­rect­ed by David Macken­zie. Writ­ten by Tay­lor Sheri­dan. Star­ring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Fos­ter, Gil Birm­ing­ham, Marin Ire­land, Katy Mixon, Dale Dick­ey, Kevin Rankin, Melanie Pa­palia, John Paul Howard, Christo­pher W. Gar­cia and Mar­garet Bowman.

At a cer­tain mo­ment in Hell or High Wa­ter, the half-In­di­an, half-Mex­i­can Texas Ranger Al­ber­to Park­er (Gil Birm­ing­ham) gives a brief mono­logue about how the land of West Texas used to be­long to his Co­manche an­ces­tors un­til the grand­par­ents of the white folks who live there came and took it. “And now it’s been tak­en from them. Ex­cept it ain’t no army do­ing it, it’s those sons of bitch­es right there,” he says, point­ing at the Texas Mid­lands Bank. It is a beau­ti­ful mo­ment that makes it clear who the vil­lains are and lets us sym­pa­thize even more with a pair of bank rob­bers. And the fact that this thought-pro­vok­ing neo-West­ern boasts a hi­lar­i­ous sense of hu­mor, great per­for­mances and price­less di­a­logue is a bonus.

The two bank rob­bers in ques­tion are broth­ers Tan­ner Howard (Ben Fos­ter), who has just got­ten re­leased from prison, and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), an un­em­ployed and di­vorced fa­ther who is des­per­ate to save his family’s ranch, which is about to be fore­closed by the Texas Mid­lands Bank un­less he finds a way to pay off a re­verse mort­gage debt in a few days. Toby wants to leave the real es­tate to his chil­dren since oil has re­cent­ly been dis­cov­ered in the land, but the way he has come up with to raise the mon­ey is rob­bing branch­es of the Texas Mid­lands Bank. Mean­while, Texas Rangers Mar­cus Hamil­ton (Jeff Bridges), who is close to re­tire­ment, and his part­ner Park­er are as­signed to the case and try to an­tic­i­pate what the broth­ers will do next.

The script writ­ten by Tay­lor Sheri­dan (Sicario) is per­fect ma­te­r­i­al for these ac­tors to show their tal­ent. Filled with dark­ly hu­mor­ous ex­changes of di­a­logue, Hell or High Wa­ter is struc­tured around the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the broth­ers (with their strik­ing dif­fer­ences in per­son­al­i­ty) and that be­tween the Rangers, who couldn’t be more dis­sim­i­lar and yet man­age to get along in their own pe­cu­liar way. It is a plea­sure to see the Howards in­ter­act­ing with each oth­er as they bury stolen cars in the mid­dle of nowhere or talk about their fam­i­ly is­sues, and the same can be said about how Hamil­ton and Park­er spend most of the film bick­er­ing with racist slurs like only peo­ple who know each oth­er for a long time could do.

As the broth­ers move on to find new banks and the Rangers track them down, Hell or High Wa­ter un­folds like an au­then­tic road movie, with stops along the way that in­clude an Ok­la­homa casi­no (the stolen mon­ey needs to be laun­dered) and a din­er where a wait­ress prac­ti­cal­ly tells the cops what they must and must not or­der — a hi­lar­i­ous mo­ment in which we get to hear a sen­tence like “I’m hot, and I don’t mean the good type.” The plot also be­comes more nu­anced when we see how pro­tec­tive the Howards can be of each oth­er when­ev­er they come across oth­er peo­ple or when it be­comes clear that this is not a clas­sic West­ern with eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish­able good and bad guys. Like in real life, things are more complicated.

Pine and Fos­ter do an ex­cel­lent job play­ing two three-di­men­sion­al char­ac­ters who strug­gle against an un­fair sys­tem that fa­vors greedy bankers. Vi­o­lent and ex­plo­sive, Tan­ner wants to help his broth­er just be­cause he asked him, even know­ing that this could throw him back into jail, and Foster’s com­bi­na­tion of in­ten­si­ty and charis­ma helps us sym­pa­thize with him all the way. Toby, on the oth­er hand, has a clean record and feels hes­i­tant to en­gage in vi­o­lence (no­tice his con­cerned look when Tan­ner be­comes too ag­gres­sive in the film’s first scene). But that is, un­less his broth­er and his fam­i­ly are in dan­ger, and Pine al­ways makes us be­lieve that Toby would do any­thing to help those he loves to stay away from poverty.

Still, it is Jeff Bridges who steals the scene every time he ap­pears. Play­ing an ec­cen­tric char­ac­ter not so dif­fer­ent from the ones that earned him so much praise in Crazy Heart (2009) and True Grit (2010), he pulls off his good old shtick and com­pos­es Hamil­ton as a rude South­ern Ranger of sharp tongue who sounds like he is chew­ing a pota­to when he speaks. This may be too fa­mil­iar and more of the same, but it works, es­pe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that his com­ic tim­ing is im­pec­ca­ble as usu­al. Clos­ing the cast, Gil Birm­ing­ham of­fers a nice and sober bal­ance to Bridges’ larg­er-than-life per­sona, dis­play­ing a very nice chem­istry with him as well and of­fer­ing us the beau­ti­ful mono­logue I men­tioned in the be­gin­ning of this text.

Even more in­ter­est­ing is how the film shows that a lot of peo­ple are will­ing to risk their lives for a bank, like in a tense and skill­ful­ly di­rect­ed rob­bery scene that takes place lat­er on. It is hard not to scratch our heads in dis­be­lief at so many un­nec­es­sary deaths, with peo­ple fight­ing hard to pro­tect an in­sti­tu­tion that has so much mon­ey that a mere heist wouldn’t cause any dam­age to it. The truth is, when some­one rais­es hell and dis­rupts the “nat­ur­al” bal­ance ex­pect­ed in so­ci­ety, there are al­ways those who will step up for what is “right.” Hell or High Wa­ter ex­pos­es this co­nun­drum and ques­tions the very con­cepts of “right” and “wrong,” lead­ing us to an amaz­ing stand­off be­tween the right­eous and the un­der­dog in the end.

With a su­perb sound de­sign and a lot of adren­a­line in the car chase scenes, Macken­zie cre­ates a thrilling film that sur­pris­es us with an un­der­ly­ing touch of sad­ness — and Giles Nuttgens’ cin­e­matog­ra­phy, which ex­plores the dusty dry­ness of the desert, and the melan­choly mu­sic by Nick Cave and War­ren El­lis re­al­ly add to that. For no mat­ter how ex­hil­a­rat­ing or fun­ny Hell or High Wa­ter is, the fact is that this is a trag­ic tale of men try­ing to sur­vive an un­fair cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and an ugly cy­cle of pover­ty that runs in their fam­i­ly from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion like a dis­ease. And for that rea­son, it stands out as a great en­try in the genre.


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