HELL OR HIGH WATER
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland
MPAA Rating: (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 8/12/16 (limited); 8/19/16 (wider); 8/26/16 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 11, 2016
The combination of desperate men and desperate times leads to an inevitable result in Hell or High Water, a cops-and-robbers drama that makes room for sympathy for both sides. Because of the circumstances, none of what happens could be avoided, but there's a real sense here that, under other circumstances, the men on both sides of this dichotomy probably could sit down over a steak dinner and have a chat about the weather, gradually coming to discuss their lives. They might even come to some agreement about the cause of their troubles.
At one point, near the end of the film, two of these men—one from each party—do have a front-porch summit on the topic of what they have seen and done. By the time it happens, though, the only element of pleasant chit-chat that remains is the necessary formality of it. These formalities seem instinctual to these characters: The robbers refer to a person as "sir" and "ma'am," even as they point a gun in the person's face.
The thought of a more pleasant conversation between the two sides might come to mind while watching the film because a lot of the meat within Taylor Sheridan's screenplay is in the particulars of conversation. The talk isn't here just to establish the characters, who only say half or less of what they mean and only mean about half of what they say. It's also here to solidify a location or, better, the attitude of a specific place and time.
The film is simultaneously urgent in its concerns and relaxed in its approach. This is a film about life-and-death situations, a race against time, the effects of the financial crisis on ordinary folks, and a man's existential drive to keep working in order to stay one step further from a too-comfortable retirement, because there's only one more milestone for him after that.
It's also a film, though, that will put all of these concerns on hold when the two lawmen decide they might as well have lunch at a local diner across the street from the bank they're watching. We might think the point of that scene is either the lunch or the stakeout, but instead, we're treated to a no-nonsense, no-concern-for-her-tip waitress who treats the menu like a sacred text written in stone. Anything other than an order of steak and potatoes might as well be blasphemy, and don't even bother asking for that steak to be cooked on either side of medium rare.
This is a film that is patient enough to pause for scenes like this one, which exist simply to portray the particular mood and tenor of this place and the people within it. At another diner, a local waxes philosophical about the absurdity of robbing banks in this day and age, and one of the lawmen later looks out on a poor town and considers how the land, once taken from one group of people, is now being taken from the progeny of the takers. With thoughts such as that, he might have liked the men he's chasing, if only the situation were different.
The place is West Texas, and the time is some point after the economic crisis. Billboards and signs announce "debt relief" and other such promises of returning to financial normalcy, while a piece of graffiti on a wall during the film's opening one-take decries a broken system and shattered promises (No one in towns like this one gets a bailout). In that opening shot, director David Mackenzie quickly sets up a backdrop of small-town poverty, a motif that continues throughout the film, even as he inexorably brings two characters circling the block in a beat-up car to a bank employee preparing to open the local branch for the day.
The two men are brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), and they have come to rob the bank. It's clear that they're not very good at this (The money isn't out of the safe yet, and the teller doesn't have access to the safe), but their second robbery of the morning goes slightly better.
What we learn is that the brothers' mother has died recently after a long illness. Toby, who has had a clean record until now, cared for her, and Tanner, an ex-con who killed the brothers' abusive father in a "hunting accident," wasn't welcome. To pay the medical bills, their mother took out a reverse mortgage, and now the bank is preparing to foreclose on the family's property, unless Toby can pay the bank about $40,000 to cover the debt.
It's Toby's plan to pay the bank back with their own money, laundered through a casino in Oklahoma (The casino doesn't care where people get the money, just as long as they're giving it to the casino). He wants to keep the ranch in the family so that he can pass it on to his two sons. Tanner, who was left out of the will and obviously possesses an unpredictable violent streak, is more than happy to go along for the thrill of it. By the way, Mackenzie approaches the unavoidable violence as sudden and ungainly—a realistic and suspenseful touch.
The two lawmen are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is nearing retirement and clearly isn't happy about the prospect. He's a widower without any hobbies (He likes fishing but not enough to do it every day). He and Alberto investigate the string of robberies, while Marcus teases his partner about his ethnic heritage ("I'm Mexican, too," Alberto counters one joke, and Marcus responds that he's going to get it once he finishes with "the Indian stuff"). The jokes are bad, but they're not mean-spirited. The whole point is that Marcus wants Alberto to hit him back with jokes, too. That's the way this relationship is supposed to go, after all.
There's honesty in these exchanges, not only because of what is said but also because how it's said points to something deeper about these characters. It's as much in the silences and what's omitted from conversation as it is in what's actually stated (The performances among the film's central quartet are especially strong in developing the dialogue's rhythm). Hell or High Water is a simple but perceptive, morally ambiguous, and detailed piece of storytelling.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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