Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Dale Dickey, Katy Mixon, and Gil Birmingham
I have two younger brothers. From the outside one might watch the antics of three grown siblings insulting each other and describe the behavior as dysfunctional, and with the type of cringe inducing comments that we would make it would be very easy. However, and some of you who have brothers may completely understand, this behavior is normal. One minute you are ready to throw punches, or are already throwing punches, and the next you are laughing the kind of laugh that you’ll remember your entire life. No hurt feelings, no resentment, just the loyalty and love of brothers.
At the core of “Hell or High Water”, directed by David Mackenzie who last helmed the prison drama “Starred Up” and written by Taylor Sheridan who wrote the drug enforcement drama “Sicario”, is a character study about brothers and the complicated relationship that defines and motivates them. At the surface is a story about two bank-robbing brothers fighting to save the family farm from corporate corruption in West Texas. “Hell or High Water” is a shrewdly composed, wonderfully acted modern-day western.
Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who, out of desperation, organizes a plan with his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to rob a string of West Texas banks. It’s a last ditch effort for the brothers to keep the bank from foreclosing on their family farm. It doesn’t take long for the robberies to find the attention of an almost retired Texas Ranger named Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As in any great western all roads eventually lead to a brutal, violent confrontation.
The structure of “Hell or High Water” has all the characteristics found in any form of a heist film, cloaked robbers with pistols on the run from lawmen with pistols. It’s an undeniable western motif, simply substitute a pick-up truck for a horse and many of the same qualities are easily found in this film. But it’s more than just that, there is so much stimulating detail involved in nearly every beautiful, portrait-worthy moment here. From the stunning landscapes corrupted with rotating oil pumps, the collapsing cities around otherwise pristine bank buildings, a touch of graffiti that tells as much a story as any line of dialog in the film, the world weary yet hard working people pushing along in the face of despair; the details are exquisitely composed offering a story that is more than just genre defining characteristics.
Adding to these visuals is a soundtrack by the enigmatic Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. For music fans think of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, a group that consistently evolved and dissected themes of love, death, and violence with a polish of American blues and punk-rock features. The composition within this film is similar, expansive and surging without become overly elaborate. The music is a character all itself.
Included in this story are four of the best performances seen this year. Chris Pine does a great job with a very quiet role, adding subtly touches of a man with everything to gain and lose. Ben Foster does off-kilter consistently better than most actors; his no-holds-barred mentality adds a great contrast to the more restrained Mr. Pine. The dynamic between the actors playing brothers is fantastic, at a moment miles away from any kind of mutual understanding and the next completely connected and ready to sacrifice everything for each other. This relationship is reflected with two other characters, two Texan Rangers. Jeff Bridges has played this role before, a tough-as-nails cowboy stuck in a world that doesn’t need him anymore; Mr. Bridges is brilliant. Gil Birmingham plays the partner, a half-Comanche and half-Mexican, with compassion and respect. Whether the calm reactions to being racially ridiculed and completely disrespected or the appreciation and respect he has for his partner, Mr. Birmingham is the most admirable character in a world of less than admirable people. It’s another brotherly relationship, while not by blood but rather by occupational brotherhood. It’s a balance for the two characters that is played with ease.
“Hell or High Water” is at times starkly comedic, at times wholly visceral, and at other times a cutting commentary on the economic state. It’s a western, a heist film, a detective story, and a family drama. It has a little bit of everything that makes going to the movies such an amazing experience.
4.50 out of 5.00