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Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed by: David Mackenzie

Premise: A pair of brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) goes on a bank robbing spree while an aging Texas Ranger and his partner (Jeff Bridges and Gil Bermingham) try to anticipate the thieves’ next move.

What Works: Hell or High Water successfully combines the western with the crime thriller. In many respects this picture recalls the crime movies of the Coen Brothers, namely the Coen’s overrated 2007 film No Country for Old Men, but Hell or High Water is better than that. The script was written by Taylor Sheridan, who had previously written Sicario, and it mixes a heist story with rich characterizations and intelligent ideas. As a western, Hell or High Water most closely resembles films like Unforgiven and The Proposition; this story takes place in the American west but instead of a place of redemption the west is now decrepit with small rural towns and their way of life dying out. The setting pairs neatly with the caper aspects of the film. A pair of brothers is determined to save the family farm from foreclosure by robbing the local branches of the bank chain that holds the deed to their home and repaying it with the stolen loot. The bothers’ motives are more interesting than the average movie criminal and there is more at stake than merely getting away with the cash. The robbers are played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine who make a terrific pair. They are convincing as siblings but each character has his own distinct personality with Foster as the violent psychopath and Pine as the conflicted brother who doesn’t really want to hurt anyone but doesn’t want to let his family down either. Foster has the showier role but Pine is terrifically nuanced. This may be his best performance. The brothers are pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Bermingham. Bridges’ role of the lawman who is within sight of retirement is familiar to crime movies but the nuanced characterization and Bridges’ charm transcends the convention. Bermingham is well paired with Bridges and the two of them have a fun dynamic. Hell or High Water also features two small but notable supporting roles. Katy Mixon is a vulnerable waitress who crushes on Pine’s character and Margaret Bowman is cast as a grizzled old waitress who suffers no fools. These roles could have been little more than extras but they’re turned into vivid characters who add texture to the movie. And that’s what’s so impressive about Hell or High Water; it’s a sleek heist thriller and delivers the action and suspense that calls for while also allowing for complex ideas, rich atmosphere, and nuanced characterizations.

What Doesn’t: The message of Hell or High Water is ambiguous and—depending upon how the viewer interprets the matter—a bit questionable. The criminals justify their actions based upon the predatory lending schemes of the financial institutions that they are robbing. Other characters in the movie make similar comments, creating the impression that the film itself tacitly condones the criminal logic. However, the integrity of the robbers’ justification doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny especially given some of the violent complications that occur along the way. The movie has a similar problem with the casual racism of Jeff Bridges’ character. His partner is half Hispanic and half Native American and Bridges’ Texas Ranger makes a lot of jokes at his partner’s expense. The movie plays those comments for humor although Gil Bermingham’s character does dish it back. Like the brothers’ criminal scheme, there is more going on beneath the racial insults. These uncouth qualities may make Hell or High Water difficult for some audiences but it is also what makes the film complex. Hell or High Water traffics in moral ambiguity and the flaws of the characters and their rationales are what give this film its humanity.

Bottom Line: Hell or High Water is a terrific movie. It can be enjoyed simply as a suspenseful heist picture, and as that it is well executed, but Hell or High Water has much more going on beneath the surface and it is a thoughtful play on the western and it contains several great performances.

Episode: #611 (September 11, 2016)