HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

One-line review: Bank robbers or Banks that rob their clients, who’re the real criminals? 

Scottish director David Mackenzie is the master of walking the tightrope between masculinity and sentimentality. His previous film, Starred Up, a brutal and moving prison drama, landed him the unlikely job of directing Hell or High Water. This film is firmly rooted in West Texas and requires an innate understanding of the terrain and its people. But Taylor Sheridan’s script takes care of that, and Sheridan says an outside director like Mackenzie was more likely to be authentic to the script than someone with preconceived notions of Westerns. And what a directorial coup it proved to be. Rather than making just a Western, Mackenzie focuses on the universal emotional arc that lingers long after watching the movie.     

The story is about our shared human condition of crushing hopelessness and how people use different ways to cope and overcome it. In this movie, the two good for nothing broke brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), decide to take hopelessness head-on by carrying out a series of bank robberies to give their next generation (Toby’s sons) a brighter future. Toby is the brains behind the plan: rob a few branches of Texas Midlands Bank to raise enough money to repossess his mother’s ranch. Texas Midlands Bank reverse mortgaged the ranch at an impossibly high-interest rate and is almost about to possess it. The ranch is hot property because they’ve struck oil there. Come hell or high water; they must raise the money in a couple of days or lose the ranch forever to Texas Midlands Bank. 

The brothers had a rough childhood, an abusive father whom Tanner killed, thus estranging his mother forever. Although united by a painful childhood, both brothers couldn’t be more different. Toby is quiet, sensitive, astute, and dangerous but has no prison record. Tanner is all heart, ready to fly off the hook any minute, and has spent almost half his life in prison. He knows he may not get out of this mission alive but is determined to help his younger brother succeed in his mission. The film captures their bond beautifully through a series of montages—the brothers drinking beer, playfully boxing with each other, singing together. But the impending doom looms large. Will they pull off their last series of bank robberies the next day? Will they make it alive? 

Their nemesis is Ranger Hamilton, a wise, wizened cop who quickly figures out their modus operandi. Who else can play him but Jeff Bridges? Although Bridges has played these genre roles before, here he has to infuse his bravado with sadness. He is a lonely widower starting at retirement and wants to go out in a blaze of glory. His sidekick, Native American Ranger, Alberto (Gil Birmingham),is the long-suffering butt of Ranger Hamilton’s racist jokes. But Alberto knows Hamilton is struggling with his loneliness and impending irrelevance. The men are thick friends, and Alberto grudgingly puts up with his friend’s strange way of showing affection. 

The film is as sparse as the Texan landscape (trivia: it was shot in New Mexico). The landscape is almost another character in the movie:  the vast plains, the mountains in the distance, the deserted streets, rows of foreclosed homes. But real people live here—people with spunk, guns, character, and above all disillusionment. The film abounds with stellar performances from actors in minor roles. Some of these performances include Margaret Bowman’s sassy waitress, Katy Mixon’s empathetic waitress who becomes the brothers’ ally because of their kindness, Dale Dickey’s bank teller who almost gets shot for calling Tanner stupid, and hitting a raw nerve there. Writer Taylor Sheridan also makes a brief appearance as a cowboy highlighting the harsh life of the ranchers. 

As a former actor, Sheridan is familiar with bad parts that give actors no leeway to perform. Therefore, in his writing role, he is determined to provide even the most minor characters a point of view. Sheridan is also famously allergic to exposition, and we figure out the story like a puzzle in bits and pieces.

Although the movie’s theme is as macho as it can get, Texan cowboy bank robbers pursued by the local rangers, the underlying melancholy makes the film’s mood similar to a violin’s plaintive cry. The heart of the film is the love between two doomed brothers. Chris Pine plays Toby like a tightly coiled spring, which can be smoothly undone by a loving woman or snap in the presence of aggressive men. Ben Foster is the perfect counterfoil, brawny and brash, but his deep hurt from being cast away by his mother threatens to bubble up in tears anytime. Although the film tells us their back story only through a few lines of dialogue, their bond is believable thanks to their expert performances.  

Aside from the performances, the film works because it satisfies our innate desire for justice. Although the bank-robbing brothers are the obvious criminals, aren’t the banks who lend to customers knowing they cannot repay the loans worse? A few innocent people die along the way, but as Tanner says, “no one gets away with anything,” not even the survivors because they must live with regret and guilt for the rest of their lives. And finally, lest we feel sorry for the Texans, Alberto reminds us that the banks screwing over the locals is just history repeating itself. These very locals not too long ago screwed over Alberto’s Native American ancestors. 

Why you must watch it. This satisfying entertainer also makes you question your assumptions of good and evil.      

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