By guest columnist David Leninhawk.
Hell or High Water at times feels like a film from the 1970s. It has a simple story, but that story is told with a focus on interesting and well-drawn characters and with the smallest amount of formula necessary. It is dark in tone while being bright and hot in visuals. The acting is about as superb as can be. The violence is abundant, but not gratuitous.
This is a film too smart and well-made for the modern era of American moviemaking. If it weren’t for the constant visual references to the 2008 financial crisis (a plot involving mortgages and predatory loans, constant billboards advertising payday loans and foreclosure notices), one would be forgiven for not knowing this was a modern film.
(Minor spoilers follow.)
When the film opens we meet two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine, in his best performance yet) and Tanner (Ben Foster). Toby is a common man, but smarter than he seems. Out of work after a long-time job working on natural gas pipelines, and his mother recently passing away, he is left with the burden of debt on his mother’s farm. That debt is the result of a predatory reverse mortgage the mother took out when she was old and sick, subprime horribleness.
But, there’s a silver lining. There is oil underneath the farm. If Toby can pay off the debt and own the farm outright, he can become rich by leasing out the rights to mine on the land. That’s where Tanner comes in. Tanner has recently been released from prison after a lengthy stint for bank robbery. Together the two hatch a plan to rob branches of the bank that preyed on their mother, taking small amounts (nothing bigger than $100 in bills, and only drawer cash not bothering with the safe). They want to pay the bank back with their own money, and it’s kind of hard not to root for them in doing so. Once they get enough money, the plan is to drive over to Oklahoma (the film takes place in, and constantly exudes, Texas) and launder the money at the casino to pass off the money as a lucky run at gambling. Overall, it’s a pretty decent plan.
There are issues, of course. Tanner is a violent criminal through and through, and is known for being unnecessarily violent (hitting an old woman who opens a bank branch) and unpredictable (robbing the branch of a different, unrelated bank, unexpectedly, while his brother is still across the street eating breakfast). Toby has a goal and a mission, but Tanner seems to be in on the plan mostly for fun, with a little bit of love for his brother on the side.
Naturally, the law would get involved, and in true Texas fashion the brothers end up with two Texas Rangers on their trail. The invaluable Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a forced-to-retire Ranger who grabs these bank robberies as his last case. Marcus’s partner is Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a half-Mexican, half-Native American that Marcus has a genuine affection for, but that affection often comes out as racially tinged ribbings. Alberto fires some stingers back at Marcus, and it is clear, without every becoming too sappy or on the nose, that these two people really like and care about each other. In small moments, of which the film has in abundance, it also becomes clear how lonely Marcus is, and how worried about Marcus his partner is. One scene, set up as a humorous aside as the two hang out in Albert’s hotel room as they wait for a stakeout of a bank branch the next day, becomes a laidback examination of the loneliness and concern they feel, but hide behind the normal interactions male friends have in a hyper-masculinized setting like the Texas Rangers.
Marcus is whip smart, and pretty much profiles the robbers correctly for their basic motive and how they will behave going forward. Alberto initially writes the robbers off as “tweekers”, but soon is proven wrong when more and more of Marcus’s hunches bear fruit. Meanwhile, we also get smaller character moments for the brothers. We learn through an interaction at the casino just how lonely the divorced Toby is (he wants to free up the farm land and license the drilling rights largely so that his kids won’t know the poverty he has known). We also, in a scene with his eldest child, find out the debts of his loathing and self-hatred.
This is a film that tells us a lot about who its characters are without making it seem like we’re being spoonfed exposition about them, because the scenes in which the information comes out feel natural and authentic, and information is mainly gleaned between the lines or through facial expressions and acting queues than explicit lines of dialogue. Tanner is a rather shallow character, but we even get enough moments to know what drives him. The characters in this film feel about as human as fictional characters can, and this is all a testament to the acting prowess on display, and to the absolutely wonderful script by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the very smart “Sicario”, which made my list as one of the best films of last year.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the film is how it tries to plug subtle liberal messages in a film tailor made for conservative audiences. We get rough and tumble mens-men in Texas tied to this bank robbery plot, but we also have subtle indictments of gun culture. Everyone in Texas seemingly has a gun and is itching for vigilante justice, but Rangers like Marcus discourage that, and wannabe concealed-carry heroes don’t meet happy endings in this film. When a mob of heavily armed Texans pursue the brothers, they are easily repelled by a much bigger weapon, which is perhaps a mixed message, but also subtly points out the absurdity of the armed revolution premise of the 2nd Amendment; how will being armed help you overthrow a tyrannical government when that same government will always have more powerful weapons in a larger abundance?
The gun issue aside, the film is a constant peppering of indictments over the American economy and its predatory nature. Unemployment, foreclosures, poverty, and people trapped in jobs they hate cram every inch of every frame of this film. The film somehow manages to be obvious and subtle at the same time with a message that isn’t exactly anti-Capitalist, but is certainly against the way the American economy is currently being run, and is really concerned with making sure its audience understands how shitty the American landscape is. The film even gives us a little speech from Alberto about how the land of his peoples was stolen from them by white settlers, and now the descendants of those settlers are having THEIR land stolen by the banks and the rich people and conglomerates. It’s a low key speech, but also pretty savage.
Despite the sometimes heady elements, this movie spends a lot of its first two acts being very fun and funny. Like a Coen Brothers film, it mixes the drama and humor, but unlike many of their films, this one never hits the wrong tone (“No Country For Old Men” was often too silly for my liking, but this film always finds the right balance). There’s even time for the film to slow down and give us good scenes that may not advance the plot, but are wicked good fun. The scene where Marcus and Alberto sit down at a restaurant and are served by the world’s oldest and angriest don’t-give-a-fuck waitress is a hoot and a highlight, but aside from maybe adding some more window dressing as to the economic squalor of the film, it adds nothing of significance to the plot.
The end of the film, when it comes, tries to eschew formula as much as possible, and it largely succeeds. While the ending doesn’t feel completely atypical of what you’d expect or overly artsy, it’s not the traditional ending for a film of this nature either. Hell or High Water always finds the right balance between being original without being too artsy so as to alienate an audience not akin to watching indie films. This is a smart, artfully made, well written and acted film that has enough elements to entertain a mainstream audience without compromising its artistry. It walks that tightrope about as well as any film in recent memory.
This is an excellent film, and one of the best of the year. It’s a sad fact about the current state of Hollywood filmmaking that movies like this rarely get made anymore, much less released in theaters, much less in anything close to a wide release. A film this well-made and smart but also entertaining is really fucking rare these days. A-
Guest writer David Leninhawk sees a LOT of movies. Check out his site for more reviews.
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