November 26, 2016


Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon. Directed by David Mackenzie. (2016, 102 min).

Years from now, Hell or High Water might be remembered for being a film emblematic of its time. Not for its aesthetics, but the economic climate in which it takes place. Along with The Big Short, I can't really think of another film so effective at vilifying the corporate banks which have recently destroyed so many lives. It also happens to be damn good character-driven action film that could be viewed as a modern-day western.

So even though the lead characters are indeed robbing banks all over West Texas, they aren’t really the villains here. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is desperately trying to save his dead mother’s ranch from foreclosure - due to a reverse mortgage deal - so he has something to leave his estranged sons. Since he’s never robbed a bank, he enlists the help of his ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), who has a lot more experience, but is impulsive and reckless. Amusingly, they hit several branches of the very bank threatening to take the ranch (two before the opening credits even begin).

Two Texas Rangers are soon on the hunt. Jeff Bridges is Hamilton, a gruff curmudgeon about to retire against his will; Gil Birmingham is Alberto, his longtime partner who endures a variety of Hamilton’s racial insults, though they’re intended affectionately because these two are as close as the Howard brothers. Because of the small scale and frequency of these robberies, as well as the banks they’re targeting, Hamilton is quickly able to deduce where the suspects hit next. For Toby, time is definitely an issue - he needs all the money to pay off the loan by Friday, which is both helped and hindered by Tanner, who becomes an increasingly loose cannon.

"That's either a cow or the biggest damn gopher I ever saw."
Because the characters are so well-defined, Hell or High Water is much more than a shoot ‘em up chase film, though the action scenes are gritty, suspenseful and eventually bloody. We definitely have a personal stake in the outcome, and though we may not necessarily condone the Howards’ actions, we certainly understand them. Great performances help immensely. Foster and Bridges are good, though both have played similar characters before. Chris Pine, however, is the real surprise. He’s always been affable and likable, but this is the first time I’ve actually watched him become the character.

Hell or High Water comes to an inevitable conclusion that's poignant, satisfying and, above all, believable. It may not be another Bonnie & Clyde, though many favorable comparisons can be made. If the film were actually based on a true story, Toby & Tanner would probably be seen by moviegoers as modern day folk heroes. And unfortunately, there are probably countless, economically-devastated people who can completely relate to their plight. It would be nice if, someday, this movie were considered a period piece.

"Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water"
"Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water"
"Visualizing the Heart of America"
Red Carpet Premiere
Filmmaker Q&A

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