“Hell or High Water” Movie Review


     As the dog days of summer pass and we begin to enter the movie going season which provides us by far the most Oscar bait,  the filmmakers behind “Hell or High Water” must’ve thought they would get ahead of the competition and rid us of the foul stench that is the majority of films put in front of us the past several months.  Perhaps the timing was impeccable, but director Dave Mackenzie’s new film, a gritty bank heist drama which proves by its end to be a brilliant multi layered character study, is as entertaining as it is in being spot on with its realism.

     Written by “Sicario” scribe Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water” may be compared to the Coen’s Academy Award winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men”, but after I really thought about it, I see it as being more along the lines of another Coen masterpiece, the North Dakota and Minnesota set “Fargo”.  I make that comparison because “Hell or High Water” achieves that always nifty trick of taking an unfamiliar setting, populated by people who live differently than the masses, and injecting common elements into the storyline in order to appeal to a broader audience.  Those elements I speak of are of course crime, law, order, and family. 

     The film opens with a bank robbery in a small West Texas town bank branch and right away we begin to understand the tone the filmmakers intend to create.  Brothers Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) target the bank just as the first arriving employee unlocks the front doors, but not all seems to go as planned.  The drawers are empty and the employee doesn’t have the code to the safe, as Toby, Tanner, and the teller exchange bits of surprisingly comedic dialogue, especially considering the situation.  There’s much more of that as the film begins to build its momentum.  These character’s intentions are serious, but some of life’s gaffes seem to always present themselves, causing even the most suspenseful of moments to sometimes give way to a smile.  This is only enhanced by the presence of Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, a Texas lawman on the cusp of retirement, who finds himself in the middle of the Howard’s crime spree, along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

     The banter back and forth between Marcus and Alberto is absolutely hilarious and lends credence to the fact the film takes place in a setting where people simply act different, live their lives different, and aren’t offended by a little good hearted ribbing.  Alberto, said to be half Indian and half Mexican, is consistently harassed by Marcus with a never ending array of racial and religious putdowns in a way only a weathered and gruff soon to be retired Texas Ranger could and would.  Of course Alberto comes right back at him, but in a situation where the two spend endless hours and days tracking and surveilling the next possible target of the Howard brothers, what else are you gonna do besides taking turns capping on each other.  Save to say, this isn’t the kind of conversation that would be looked upon in a positive way by Officers from most police departments today, with an abundance of over sensitive and politically correct cops now roaming the streets, but for these guys it works and brings a real authenticity to their relationship.

     There’s plenty more going on here than just a series of simple bank hold ups for a little pocket money.  With Tanner recently being released from prison, Toby has found himself in danger of losing the ranch left to him by his recently deceased mother, as the story here has as much to do with the specific banks the brothers choose to rob being the same bank that is threatening to foreclose on the property if the balance of a reverse mortgage and back taxes aren't paid immediately.  Mackenzie ensures his camera shows us these blighted West Texas small towns with startling detail, indicating the people who live in these areas are barely making it financially and have even, perhaps, lost hope.  There is; however, an obvious sense of community and the town’s folk are none to happy with the prospect of two masked gunman coming into their town and stealing.  Save to say, the Howard brothers didn’t take into account the amount of people within these towns who apparently travel about with a good old Smith and Wesson on their side.  The hilarity of the third act as it relates to this issue, as well as its shocking plot developments will have you both at the edge of your seat and chuckling at the same time.

     Pine’s performance is easily his best and it no doubt bodes well for his future to shed the slick and confident Captain Kirk routine and expand into the more juicy and challenging roles such as this one.  Foster is also good, but it’s Jeff Bridges with outstanding support from Gil Birmingham that glues the whole thing together.  I can talk to you first hand about the realism exhibited when you have two cops, one about to retire and the other hoping someday he will get there too, talk candidly about their retirement dreams while in the face of danger each and everyday.  One of them knows he has made it.  The other is just hoping he can survive long enough to do the same.  GRADE: A