From Director David Mackenzie comes Hell or High Water, a film that taps into the plight many Americans have faced since the economic collapse of 2008. Does the film resonate or is it another late summer dud?
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father trying to raise money to pay off his beleaguered family’s farm in the aftermath of his mother’s death. He recruits his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), to help him accomplish the task by the end of the week. How will they raise the money needed to pay off the farm’s entire debt? Why, robbing banks, of course! However, since one bank in particular is the source of Toby’s misery, they only rob that bank’s branches, thus planning to pay the bank back with its own money. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is on the doorstep of retirement, catches the case and he and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), try to crack it. Will the Howard boys accomplish their task or will Ranger Hamilton win the day?
When I first saw the trailers for Hell or High Water, I knew it was a film that I definitely wanted to see, but it felt like it was going to be No Country for Old Men-lite. It is to a degree, as the setting and cat-and-mouse games are the same, but the conflict is so vastly different, it doesn’t feel similar at all. Also, the tone in No Country is pitch black, while Hell or High Water has some levity to it, which works very well for these characters. The humor never felt out of place for me. The story is compelling, though it is a slow burn and took a little bit for me to get into it. There is plenty of tension, though, as the story ratchets up throughout the course of the film. The screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote last year’s stellar Sicario, so story-wise, the film is in good shape. The problems I had with it, aside from the casually racist jabs that Hamilton takes at his half-Mexican partner, was that the film constantly beat the audience over the head with the message that “Banks are Bad.” Yes, they definitely are, but it seemed that whenever Mackenzie had a chance, he’d fill the frame with a bunch of billboards touting services banks and debt relief agencies use to swindle the citizenry. Once or twice would have been enough to make the point, but he belabors it. Speaking of belaboring a point, I get that the story is set in Texas, but did we really need several loud country-western selections peppered throughout the production? The songs felt jarring compared to the content on the screen. We get it, we’re in Texas. The instrumental music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—not that Warren Ellis, comic book fans—worked great, it was just the songs that felt out of place with the tone of the film, even in a western setting.
The cast does a great job here. Pine continues to impress in films where the budgetary stakes are not very large. I like him very much as Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek movies, but he’s really shown me something in his indie work. Bridges seems to be channeling his interpretation of Rooster Cogburn from the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit. He does well with the role, but it felt like I’d already seen him play this character before. Also, as I pointed out above, the casual racism of his quips towards the stoic Birmingham got to be a little much. The character probably saw it as just good-natured ribbing, but after a while, that stuff has got to hurt. The real standout here is Foster as Tanner. Foster is one of those actors that has been on the edge of breaking out for a long time. He delivers a solid performance here as the morally ambiguous ex-con. The best part of this cast, combined with the writing, is that you’re never sure who to exactly root for. All the characters are likable and have both their good and bad traits, but you may feel yourself quite torn as the film barrels to its conclusion.
Overall, you should definitely see Hell or High Water. It is easily one of the summer’s best films and features fantastic performances from a great cast. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of films like Heat or No Country for Old Men, but it is a solid tale and worth your time.