Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Taylor Sheridan

After a summer full of promising blockbuster reboots and sequels which failed to win over not just the critical consensus, but also, by and large, box office numbers, the season is beginning to wind down and give way to the fall slate of films, which with it brings upon us awards season and the period drama deluge. That is not to say that the film I am about to review is aimed at winning awards. It’s not. That is not to say the film I am about to review is a fall season period drama. It’s not. But after a decidedly mediocre summer season at the movie theater this year, seeing something like Hell or High Water brings back life to the screen just in time for summer to set, school to start, and major Hollywood studios to begin releasing their Oscar contending material upon the masses. It should work as a magnificent bridge from summer to fall.

Set in desolate West Texas, Hell or High Water opens with a bang as brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) rob a bank just as the clerk (Dale Dickey) is opening the doors for the day. Thus begins a string of bank robberies for the distant brothers, who have just recently come back together thanks to Tanner being released from jail soon after their mother has passed away. Left to care for his mother on his own thanks to his convict brother, Toby must come up with a plan to combat the bank, whose greedy loans to his mother are set to default, forcing the brothers to turn over the family ranch, which sits atop a goldmine of oil reserves, ready to be harvested. Toby’s plan is unfolding perfectly, until an aged, ready to retire Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham) begin investigating the string of robberies.

From the very first, extremely impressive shot of the film, director David Mackenzie announces that this will be a stylish film, insomuch as a West Texas crime film can be stylish. The cinematography is stellar throughout, but what Mackenzie is able to achieve in mood and atmosphere is an impressive use of the depressing, vacant landscape of West Texas, along with the people’s relationship with their homeland. Standing up against banks, and constant reminders that the poor economy of the region are stalwarts in Mackenzie’s film, and backdrops to the greater, more intricate family story being told here. Toby is the anti-hero, whose outlawing plan stands in contrast to his past record (there is none), and yet he sits next to his son telling him to do life differently than he has, showing the audience that while Toby is the good one of the two, he has made plenty of mistakes as well.

The ensemble cast is great all around, providing emotional resonance while also allowing the film to have an ironic comedic touch throughout to break up the rather bleak story, landscape and outlook. Foster is calculatingly over-the-top while Pine plays the unselfish hero. The partnership between Jeff Bridges’ Marcus and his Texas Ranger partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham, is poignantly fun as well, while also caring the heft of a lifelong friendship that is sadly coming to end soon with Marcus’ retirement. There are so many great little moments delivered by everyone in the cast, including a small part by Katy Mixon, who plays a waitress unwilling to part with her sizable tip, even after she finds out it was supplied by bank robbers, because times are that tough and she needs the money to pay her mortgage.

Thus far in 2016, I may not have seen such a film to blend so many elements as well as Hell or High Water does. From the acting, directing, cinematography, comedy and drama, score and soundtrack, the film is entertaining as hell and masterfully crafted by both the screenwriter, whose characters have depth and reason, and the director, whose vision has purpose and artistic merit. It is a Western film which tells the story of two outlaws and the retiring lawman trying to catch them (a pretty great premise), but the twisted and confused morality of it all provides plenty to chew on while also being entertained immensely from start to finish by the charismatic chemistry between the cast members and David Mackenzie’s surehanded vision. Hell or High Water is a smaller film than what we saw this summer, but it is exciting enough and deep enough to help us pass into the fall season seamlessly.

***1/2 – Great

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