New Review: Hell or High Water (2016)
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey
Hell or High Water is such gripping modern day noir Western that it hooks you with its stupendous opening shot and never lets go. The film’s opening single shot—which shows a woman arriving at her bank job in the early hours of the morning and two robbers driving their car behind the building and sneaking up on her just as she starts to unlock the door to the bank—is simply spell-binding, and makes way for what is easily one of the most visually striking movies I’ve seen this year. If cinematographer Giles Nuttgens isn’t even nominated for his work here (and the one shot of two brothers silhouetted against the dusk should be enough to earn him one), then the people at the Oscars are not doing their job.
Scripted by Taylor Sheridan (who made his screenwriting debut with last year’s hellaciously overrated Sicario), the movie tells the story of brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, turning in the film’s most enjoyable performance) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine, in a surprisingly dark and layered performance). Tanner is the older brother who spent ten years in prison some time ago; Toby is the quiet law abiding citizen with an ex-wife and two kids. After the bank cheated their mother before her death, the brothers come up with an ingenious plan: steal from the bank that stole from them and use it to pay off their family ranch before it forecloses by the end of the week.
Jeff Bridges turns in a performance reminiscent of his Rooster Cogburn role in 2010’s True Grit as (oddly enough) Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He and his half-Mexican half-Indian partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are called in to track down the brothers, and much of the movie involves verbal sparring between the two men (mainly, Marcus cracking wise about Alberto’s ethnicity). While Marcus’ jabs at Alberto are clearly meant to be affectionate and good-humored, there comes a point where Alberto begins to take it personally. Marcus takes notice, and in one of the most memorable moments in the film, he wraps himself up in a blanket, walks out of his hotel room, and disappears into the night (going nowhere in particular).
The interplay between the two brothers is just as compelling. Tanner is the loose cannon between the two of them, sometimes initiating violent encounters for the fun of it (in the first robbery, he pistol whips the bank manager for no reason). Toby is the calmer one of the bunch, but in one particularly shocking scene set at a gas station, we learn that he’s just as capable of committing violence like his older brother. Toby took care of their dying mother while Tanner was in prison, and Tanner has always felt like something of a black sheep in the family (he sheds a few tears for his mom, but that quickly passes).
There’s real warmth and chemistry between Pine and Foster; you get a real sense of familial history with these two men. Particularly amusing is the way they show affection for each other. There is only one moment in the film where they actually say “I love you” to each other, although they manage to say it in another way as well, and one that’s best left for you to discover for yourself (one involves the use of the “f” word, and I won’t say any more than that).
Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie captures an authentic look and feel in the financially crippled Texas landscapes. The Howard brothers are not the only ones who have been wronged by the banks, as we learn in the many shots of abandoned buildings and houses with “for sale” signs in the front yards. The main bank in the film had to close up shop in one town that has been suffering from severe financial woes. The family ranch the Howards are trying to save is out in a scenic part of the country, but the house itself is nearly dilapidated.
In this drab landscapes comes moments of violence so shocking and brutal that the audience I watched it with gasped. This is especially true in the way Mackenzie stages the death of one particular character (I won’t say who), which is handled so unpredictably that even if you guess this character’s demise in advance, you certainly won’t know when it’ll happen. Yet the bulk of the movie is character focused and deliberately paced, allowing for not only moments of real poignancy, but also laugh-out-loud humor. The funniest moment in the film involves Marcus and Alberto’s encounter with a cantankerous old waitress who won’t take any crap from anyone, and who, for the most part, makes their order for them.
It all leads to a final scene between Bridges and Pine that’s so immaculately written and flawlessly acted that it left me wishing that the movie would go on longer, if only to spend more time with these compelling and three-dimensional figures. The movie is 102 minutes long, and yet it’s so absorbing and thrilling that it actually seemed to pass by in no time at all. In a year that gave audiences such garbage heaps like Hardcore Henry, Suicide Squad, and especially Independence Day: Resurgence, Hell or High Water is a magnificent achievement that also serves as a reminder about why we go to the movies in the first place. I can’t wait to see it again.
Rated R for some brutal violence, lots of profanity, some sexual content
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)