Movie Reviews Hell or High Water (2016)

“Blood always follows money”

3 Stars
Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water (2016)


Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Synopsis: To brothers resort to desperate measures to save their family ranch.

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Times are hard in West Texas.   Billboards offering debt relief and loans line the wide roads and, as Native American sheriff Alberto (Gil Birmingham – The Lone Ranger) wryly remarks to his fellow Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges – The Big Lebowski, Seventh Son), the banks are now clearing the whites from their land in much the same way that, several generations before, the whites cleared the Native Americans from theirs.   These two ageing upholders of the law are in not-so-hot pursuit of a couple of bank robbers who have hit a number of branches of the same bank in quick succession.   Hamilton’s plan to capture the two desperadoes consists of sitting across the street from one of the branches he believes they’re likely to hit, and waiting.

The two men responsible for the robberies – whose identities are unknown to Hamilton and Alberto – are brothers whose mother has recently died following a long illness.   Her death is so recent, in fact, that the medical bed in which she saw out her final days still occupies her bedroom.   It provides a source for the sole conversation in which older brother, Tanner (Ben Foster – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Warcraft) demonstrates any kind of introspective reflection.   He is the wilder of the two, the brother who has spent time inside, and who uses belligerence as a defence mechanism.

The bank is due to foreclose on their ranch at the end of the week unless they can raise the thousands necessary to pay off their debt.   It’s money they don’t have and, to add to their woes, oil has been located on their land, which means that they will both become very wealthy men if they can just hold onto it – or lose a potential fortune if they can’t.   The branches they hit all belong to the bank that is about to foreclose on them, a development which automatically makes the audience sympathetic to the brothers: their criminality becomes a form of vengeance against an oppressive system to which we can all relate.

The second brother is Toby (Chris Pine – Smokin’ Aces, Star Trek Beyond).   Handsome and reserved, Toby, appears to be more grounded than his older brother, although the brutal beating he delivers to a gun-toting bully on a garage forecourt suggests that the brothers drink from the same well of anger and resentment.   Their plan, dreamed up by Toby, is desperate and reckless, but they’re smart enough to leave behind traceable bundles of money, and bury their getaway car after every heist, making an accomplice of the land they hope to retain.

The brothers’ relationship is mirrored somewhat by that of Hamilton and Alberto, who hide their affection for one another behind an endless exchange of insults.   They’ve fallen into the same comfortable routine in which long-married couples often find themselves and, like those couples, don’t realise just how tight the binds are that tie them.   Hamilton is close to retirement – “don’t know how you’re going to survive without someone to outsmart,” says Alberto – and you can tell the thought plays often on both of their minds.

You’ll probably gather from all of the above that Hell or High Water is more of a character study than a crime thriller; one of the things that makes the movie such a pleasure to watch is the way that Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay elicits our sympathy for the brothers without inviting admiration for them.   The boys’ planning skills might be adequate, but the execution is desperately lacking, and it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong – even if Hamilton doesn’t happen to be sipping coffee in the diner across the road from the bank they’re robbing.   The question is whether their luck will hold long enough for them to raise the funds they need.

The cast is as good as it looks.   Bridges, a once chipper youngster now easing gently into elder statesman roles, casually modulates his homespun delivery to hint at the cunning intelligence lurking beneath his apparent vagueness.   Jutting out his chin beneath a white moustache, he sometimes puts one in mind of Brando circa 1971.   Chris Pine, unshackled from the confines imposed on him by James T. Kirk, shows just what a versatile actor he can be when the part allows, while Foster cements his reputation as a top-line character actor with a performance that adds pathos and a kind of coarse nobility to the kind of character most of us would go out of our way to avoid in real life.

Hell or High Water is a rare thing: a crime movie in which the cops and the robbers are equally likable.   It takes its time to tell a thoroughly absorbing tale, and refuses to finish on a crowd-pleasing gunfight – there is a gunfight of sorts, but rather than exciting or spectacular, it is quite dispiriting – and breathes new life into a familiar story, not by ramping up the action, but by toning it down.

(Reviewed 17th November 2016)





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