Hell Or High Water

If I had a dollar for every film I’ve seen about a pair of men – one batshit insane, the other somewhat smarter but constantly dragged down because Ol’ Howling Mad Headcase is his brother or his best friend or whatever – then I’d be well on the way to being a rich man. This well-worn conceit rears its head again here: the story focuses on two Texan siblings, Toby Howard (Chris Pine, playing the bright, cautious one) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster, overdoing the loopiness a little), who rob banks together. They’re trying to keep a low profile, only hitting small branches in tiny, flatlining towns, and even then they’re only taking money directly from the tills first thing in the morning, so their scores are low but they’re managing to avoid the attention of the FBI as a result, who presumably have bigger fish to fry. The case lands on the desks of nearly-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, on top form) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who bicker like an old married couple as they set out to catch the thieves in the act.

This is an entertaining crime film, set largely in West Texas, an area notable for its wide, open plains, long, straight roads and dusty small towns. You’ve seen these spaces (and the men and women on the right and wrong sides of the law who inhabit them) many times before – Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men, Lone Star, etc. – but if you’re prepared to look closely you’ll see that it looks different today, in 2016; there opening shot reveals graffiti on a walls that has been scrawled by a disenfranchised Army veteran, and the roadside billboards seen throughout are reflective of America’s wider economic woes. And, slowly but surely, this astute and well-made film directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) gradually reveals itself to be about the economy, and the very land that we see throughout, or rather the value of land and the property that has been built upon it. The action moves between a casino housed on a Comanche reservation, a ranch sitting on lucrative oil reserves, banks that are preoccupied with chasing foreclosures, and at each location we see and hear about the link between land and money. It’s even there on the roads that connect all these places, where we see weary cattle herders moving livestock away from burning fields; they complain about the difficulty of making a living in such an inhospitable environment, and understand why their children would not want to follow in their footsteps.

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Dudes abiding: Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell Or High Water

The two Howard brothers – local guys – understand such hardship. Tanner is a loose cannon addicted to the thrill of crime, but Toby isn’t robbing banks for the hell of it. He has devised a plan to settle a score with a particular lender by stealing money directly from them, laundering it via an Oklahoma casino and subsequently using the funds to pay back the mortgage repayments the very same bank is owed, thereby securing the family home, which will increase in value when oil pumps are installed in the surrounding fields. Various figures throughout voice their approval of this Robin Hood-esque crusade against the bank; the institution receives little sympathy from Toby’s fellow Texans. When the final mortgage payments are made future generations of the Tanner family will benefit from the land, even if the Howard brothers – all fraying denim and thirst-quenching beer-drinking – are taken down by the law.

We’ve all seen dramatic bank robberies on screen countless times, but they’re still tense here, particularly when the brother inevitably get greedy and go after a bigger score in a busier branch. Naturally it all goes horribly wrong, but it’s surprising to see how the aftermath unfolds: there’s a dash of Michael Mann’s Heat to the subsequent shootouts, albeit in a completely different setting, while the car chases that follow are well-executed. So yes, this is a serious film, where criminal activity has serious consequences for all of the major characters and many of the minor ones, but pleasingly it also has moments of humour that had the audience in my local cinema laughing regularly (a comic scene involving Bridges and Birmingham in a no-nonsense steakhouse is one of my favourites of the year to date). As the story unfolds the two brothers roll their eyes at one another, waitresses are sassy and Bridges’ grizzled Ranger ribs his partner on account of his joint Mexican and Native American heritage, the insults barely masking a deep affection. Sicario was serious as hell, but Sheridan shows he also has a lighter touch with some fine comic dialogue.

There’s a very good Jeff Bridges performance in Hell Or High Water, too, which should please his many fans, and a brooding, moody turn by Chris Pine that seems to fit perfectly with the setting, the genre, the overall feel; the same could be said for the plaintive violin and piano-led score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. The only shame is that the film just falls short of the gold standard set by the other Texas-set work about criminals and the law that I mentioned above, but I stress the ‘just’; Mackenzie’s film is still well worth a watch, and in a year of disappointing American crime dramas this is surely the standout to date.

Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham.
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens.
Editing: Jake Roberts.
Music:
Nick Cave, Warren Ellis.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
101 minutes.
Year:
2016.

Comments 13

  1. Cindy Bruchman September 18, 2016

    Wonderful right up, as always, Stu. I’ve been hearing a lot about this and hoped it would be as good’ No Country for Old Men’. With Pine and Bridges to focus on, I was going to sit down in the movie theater with open eyes. There’s a tint to your voice, however, a bored disillusionment comes across (ok, maybe I’m reading too much in your words) and I wonder if you think 2016 is a dud year? I know as the years roll along, and all the movies I see, it feels like the same ol’ same ol. That a pretty good film is labeled outstanding and that so many of them, 13 out of 20, let’s say, are downright boring?

    • Stu September 18, 2016

      I do think 2016 has been a dud year (there are only two, maybe three films I can think of that I’d give five stars out of five to, but then it goes without saying that I’ve missed a fair few too!). Not sure if I’m jaded as I’ve watched more new releases in 2016 than I ever have before or whether it genuinely has been a bit poor! But at least Hell Or High Water is one of the better films that I’ve seen, certainly from Hollywood anyway; lots of it is familiar, but everything comes together well – a good story, an excellent screenplay, terrific acting by at least two of the actors. It’s like a 1970s movie and completely out of step with everything else that has been on at my multiplex of late!

  2. Todd B September 22, 2016

    I think you’ve pushed me in the direction of ‘go see this’ with your review…I’ve been already contemplating it, based on some positive reviews I’ve read, but just wasn’t sure. I still have free passes, so I’ll give it go, maybe this weekend. Most of the time I like these kinds of films, so hopefully I won’t be requesting another refund from you.

    And if I may jump in on the conversation between you and Cindy: I’ve been seeing a steady decline in quality films for many years now (that’s my opinion, of course), and I find myself (even with over a dozen free passes in my possession) going to less and less theatrical releases nowadays, and renting – and buying – less and less current films on DVD. I used to go to 40 or more films a year in the’ 80s and ’90s; now, I’m lucky to reach 10.

    • Stu September 22, 2016

      This is well worth seeing on the big screen, and I am fairly sure you won’t be asking for your (record) 65th refund. As for quality of films, I have to say it’s English language releases that I feel are lacking this year, in particular films from the US and the UK. But that said there have been some gems here and there, and still a third of the year to go. I have high hopes now we’re out of the summer season with regard to a few forthcoming movies.
      How do you get all those free passes?

      • Todd B September 22, 2016

        In the department where I work, going ‘above and beyond’ in some situations will get that person a thank-you card and a gift of either a free lunch in the cafeteria or a movie pass. Obviously, I choose the latter, and bring my own lunch to work!

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