Hell or High Water (2016) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan

Review published August 28, 2016

Hell or High Water is a throwback film to the kinds of character-driven thrillers that Hollywood used to be able to produce with assuredness, mostly released in the 1970s, where bank heists, shootouts, car chases, and wily Texas sheriffs were all the rage.  Given its down-home flavor, you'd be surprised to learn that the film isn't directed by someone from the South or Southwest, or even someone from the United States; David Mackenzie is Scottish, here in only his second feature made in the US, with the first being the little-known Ashton Kutcher sex comedy, Spread.  Mackenzie is filming based on the second feature script from Taylor Sheridan, who came to critical acclaim for his acting work on the TV show "Sons of Anarchy" as well as for writing 2015's riveting border drug cartel thriller, Sicario.

Chris Pine (Star Trek Beyond, The Finest Hours) and Ben Foster (Warcraft, Lone Survivor) play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, who we find at the beginning of the film on a bank-robbing spree in West Texas.  Toby's the smart one who has generally been above the fray, but he's now going in headfirst into a life of crime with his ne'er-do-well Tanner to secure the funs necessary to keep the banks from seizing the property willed to debt-plagued Toby, whose mother's property was mortgaged to pay for her medical care, which he aims to give to his two mostly estranged boys.  With the Feds not interested in chasing down criminals who aren't stealing much more than a few thousand here and there, a soon-to-retire Texas Ranger named Marcus Hamilton (Bridges, Seventh Son) assumes the case, along with his deputy Alberto (Birmingham, The Lone Ranger), to catch these guys before they strike again.

Although the story is a relatively straight-forward tale of criminals and the cops that chase them, there are definitely richer themes underneath the main narrative that suggests more to the story than you'd expect at first glance.  Wherever the characters go, they're greeted by debt and bankruptcy signs from banks offering to help many of the impoverished small-town residents of their money issues, generally using the opportunity to foreclose on their property and deprive them of the only thing their families have had worth anything. The poverty they all feel tightening its noose around their necks is compared to a disease that spreads from generation to generation, causing heartache and despair for the families afflicted, leading to dysfunction and abuse in many households who haven't seen a reason for optimism for a long time. 

While the film has so-called bad guys, though not exactly evil in their intent, the underlying commentary suggests that there is an unseen villain within Hell or High Water that is the actual thief of these small communities, and, ironically, they are predatory institutions that portray themselves as serving the needs of the populace around them, and they do so on the right side of the law.  And if the banks themselves go bankrupt, they're bailed out with taxpayer dollars, only to target those very same taxpayers once they get their own debt relief. Just as banks take from the people to pay for their own existence, so too does Toby seek to reverse the equation by making the banks pay for his own bailout against them.

Though the tale is on the bleak side, Sheridan infuses his characters with a good dose of wry, home-spun humor to temper the grit of the crime drama at hand, so keenly aware of clichés that it regularly sidesteps with coy precision that it becomes one of the joys as a viewer to see all of the ways that the film could have settled into contrivance, only to subvert them One scene involves a car that sounds like it's not going to turn at the least convenient moment, but does, producing a funny moment to perfectly cap off a scene where there is much palpable suspense. 

Though Bridges' need to use funny, unnatural voices in most of his films of late has grown tiresome, it suits his aging sheriff character well, imbuing him with the kind of passive racism (he uses insensitive comments as a way to bond with those around, expecting them to offer more of the same back) and world-weary demeanor that is part-and-parcel of many of those who've spent the last several decades patrolling fly-speck towns that offers its residents nothing but more of the same, only worse, as the years roll by.  There aren't many choices for those living in these sparsely populated parts, metaphorically featured at a T-bone steak house visited by the sheriff and deputy, whose only choice for their entire meal is which side they don't want.  Even the title meant to evoke determination, Hell or High Water, is, if taken at its most fundamental meaning, indicative that every choice offered is really no choice at all.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are also terrific as the two co-leads, with Pine delivering a determined character who aims to do right by doing a little wrong, while Foster continues his string of well-nuanced portrayals of men who seem to be living on the edge between calm and chaos, looking like he's aching for any excuse to finally snap and unleash all of the hate for the world that he's been bottling up inside.  Not to be lost in the shuffle, there's also a great non-flashy supporting role for Gil Birmingham, the half-Native/half-Mexican deputy and family man who banters often with his superior on the job but, most importantly, balances out the sheriff's tenaciousness by always reminding him of the human side of every equation.

With scenic cinematography from Mackenzie's go-to guy Giles Nuttgens (The D Train), capturing both the expansive beauty, untamed dangerousness, and the quiet desolation of West Texas (albeit filmed in New Mexico), the visions and sounds, with its Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack on one hand and a judicious use of quiet moments on the other, perfectly encapsulate the pervasive atmosphere of hopelessness and isolation in parts seemingly ignored by the rest of the country as a lost cause.  While many of the characters in the film struggle to find two nickels to be able to scrap together, Hell or High Water is awash with riches, finely detailed to authenticity, both in its many sets and locales, and in its intricately nuanced characterizations as well.  We become so invested in the people within the story, as well as in whether they are all successful in their outcome, the last half hour proves to be as suspenseful a thriller as you'll likely see in 2016.  There's so much going on, both on and underneath the surface, that those who enjoy the multi-textured film will likely find more to admire with each repeat viewing. 

Qwipster's rating:

©2016 Vince Leo