“Hell or High Water” — An Out-of-Left-Field Triumph


AUGUST 31, 2016


Last week I proclaimed Disney’s remake of “Pete’s Dragon” to be the best movie of the summer.  Maybe I spoke too soon.

“Hell or High Water” is ostensibly a bank robbery movie — I bet you haven’t seen one of those in a while — but it’s about so much more.  Set in West Texas and Oklahoma, the film travels in towns where any kind of economic recovery hasn’t been seen for decades and on roads where there are no billboards for actual products  — most of the roadside signs read “In Debt?” or “Easy Credit” but mostly say “For Sale.”

Toby Howard (Chris Pine), divorced and broke, and his older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are the bank robbers in question, who concentrate on small branches of one particular Texas bank and take only the small bills that are in the tellers’ drawers, thus avoiding traceable big bills.  For Toby, these robberies are not for the thrill of it — the brothers’ mom has just died, and the bank (the same bank they’re robbing) has a lien on the family ranch and threatens to foreclose within a week unless they’re paid.  Toby secretly knows that oil has been discovered on the property, and he is intent on getting the money somehow to pay off the bank and give the ranch to his sons.

Sometimes, when bad things happen to good people, good people have to do some bad things.

Tanner, however, who has just gotten out of prison for killing their abusive father, agrees to help his younger brother in the robberies just for the hell of it.  A hothead, Tanner’s impulsive actions soon begin to jeopardize the brothers’ success in keeping the authorities at bay.

Those authorities are led by veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges at his most crotchety) and his devoutly-Catholic Mexican/Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, very good), whose very essence gives Hamilton endless material for racial insults.  Hamilton is just three weeks away from retirement (aren’t they always?) but has a sixth sense about just where these bank robbers will strike next and a joy about the chance to crack one last case.

At this point you might be thinking that, however entertaining it might be, “Hell or High Water” sounds like something you’ve seen before, and plot-wise, you’re probably right.  The difference, though, is how it’s done.

To begin with, the film never lets us off the hook.  Given the situation that faces the Howard brothers — a threatened foreclosing on a ranch that will set up the rest of their family for life if only they could find the money to save it — I’m not sure what I would do.  I know I wouldn’t have the nerve to rob a bank, but the film asks us to consider what other alternative these two people have given the destitute financial situation facing them and those around them.  Just when we’re ready to judge them, “Hell or High Water” seems to ask, “OK, what would you do?”

The film is very strongly directed by David Mackenzie, who, though being Scottish, captures the look and feel of downtrodden American towns that feel like they’re just waiting to die.

But the key to the film’s success is a masterful script by Taylor Sheridan, whose impressive script for last year’s “Sicario” brought him a Writers Guild nomination.  He outdoes himself here.  By the second or third scene, I began to realize that each of the scenes he has written has some gem in it, whether it’s a striking colloquialism or a particularly Texas-type character or an unexpectedly loving exchange between brothers.  I began to look forward to every new scene, anxious to see what surprise was waiting for me, and Sheridan’s script never disappointed.

Now to the performances.  Hands down, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen Chris Pine give on film.  Though he’s most remembered as a noble starfleet commander in “Star Trek” or as a singing prince in “Into the Woods,” Pine comes into his own as a character actor here.  Every action that Toby takes screams desperation, and though he’s uncomfortable having to turn to crime, he knows that this is the only answer for him to be able to do the right thing for his family.  Though often his striking looks have worked against him in creating relatable characters, here his pornstache and grizzled face suggest someone who might have been a success elsewhere but just got beat up because of his situation in life.

After his terrific character turn in the 2007 western “3:10 to Yuma,” Foster has become one of Hollywood’s most reliable young character actors.  But here Foster resists turning Tanner into being simply the “bad” brother.  His chemistry with Pine and the powerful dialogue that Sheridan has provided between the two brothers allow Tanner to become a three-dimensional character that the audience thoroughly understands.

Speaking of character actors, few are as highly regarded as Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges whose droll Texas Ranger is an absolute hoot.  Bridges’ swagger just oozes authority, but he’s not afraid to be still — in fact, whenever he’s still, look out.

As impressive as it is now, I suspect that “Hell or High Water” will wear very well in the memory and will be one of those 2016 films that is remembered most fondly.