Monday, February 20, 2017

"Hell or High Water": review

"Hell or High Water" is a 2016 film directed by David Mackenzie and starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges. The story revolves around two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine and Foster, respectively), both down on their luck and trying to save their farm. Tanner, the bad boy, has been only a year out of jail while dutiful Toby has taken care of his dying mother and tried to manage a living despite being swamped with all manner of bills, including child-support payments owed to his ex-wife and two sons. Despite Tanner being the troublemaker, it's Toby who comes up with the idea of robbing various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, the bank whose reverse-mortgage loan structure has left Toby's family in constant debt. The plan Toby comes up with is effectively a money-laundering racket: rob only the cash from the Midlands branches' front drawers (no traceable ink-spray that way), take the money to casinos, convert it all to chips, then reconvert the chips to cash plus a check...made out to Midlands Bank. In effect, Toby aims to pay off his various debts to the bank that ruined his family's life by using the bank's own money—a sort of poetic justice. Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) begin tracking the robbers down. Hamilton, crusty, irascible, and on the verge of retirement, verbally spars with the multiethnic Parker while profiling the bank-robbery suspects. Much of this verbal sparring consists of politically incorrect ethnic jabs that will remind some viewers of Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski.

The plot of "Hell or High Water" is relatively simple; it has the slow, drawly, Texan feel of "No Country for Old Men," with Jeff Bridges in the Tommy Lee Jones role while simultaneously channeling Rooster Cogburn. The movie is also surprisingly funny for a crime thriller: Bridges's jokes are well written, and Ben Foster's precise comic delivery gives him some choice moments as well. Gil Birmingham, as Ranger Hamilton's partner, does excellent work as the comic foil for Bridges; the same goes for Chris Pine, whose Toby largely plays the straight man opposite Ben Foster's Tanner.

All in all, this is a well-made film. It contains no real shocks or surprises, but it moseys along and gets where it needs to get in the end. The one major question I was left with was how Toby arranged to have so many different cars available to him. True, at one point, we see Toby and Teller negotiating in a rather spur-of-the-moment way for a pickup truck (which will prove crucial to the plot later), but we're left to imagine that most of the cars that the boys use have been strategically placed. So how did Toby wrangle so many cars? The film leaves us with the thought that Toby was the smarter brother, so he had the brains to figure this out along with formulating the rest of his multi-branch robbery plan.

"Hell or High Water" is also very much a social-commentary movie. Texas Midlands Bank (which I assume is fictional) is portrayed as a clear villain unworthy of the audience's sympathy, and the movie spends a lot of time showing us the depressed conditions to be found out in west Texas. "Are you in debt?" billboards litter the dusty landscape—a message about poverty and predatory financial agencies that the movie drives home with all the subtlety of the earth mover that Toby uses to bury cars after each robbery. This makes Toby and Teller something like Robin Hood, although Teller is too violence-prone to be robbing banks out of a sense of justice: as Hamilton notes while profiling the Howard boys, Teller robs banks for the fun of it. Meanwhile, even Hamilton's partner, Alberto Parker, voices his disgust at Midlands for ruining the lives of Texan citizens.

As I noted above, the movie plods along at a calm, stately pace, and there are no shocks or surprises. That said, the screenwriting is smart enough that it'll be hard to guess the ending until you're at least three-quarters of the way through the film. "Hell or High Water" can proudly take its place in the pantheon of slow-burn thrillers, and the movie's ending is smart enough to let you, the viewer, decide whether justice has been done.


  1. I liked this quite a bit. It feels very much like a modern noir with a cowboy flavor to it. I'm not averse to Westerns and I like noir a lot.

    Everyone in this film feels like he could step right into No Country for Old Men, which I also like.

  2. À propos of nothing... I watched Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne the other night on Amazon. I liked it. I'd forgotten that Wayne won his only Oscar for it...

  3. Not to get too pedantic, but Wayne won for True Grit for the character Rooster Cogburn. The movie Rooster Cogburn is the sequel.

    Now, to get total movie nerd...

    Wayne was nominated for Best Actor twice--True Grit and The Sands of Iwo Jima. He should have been nominated for The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and probably The Shootist. He should have won for The Searchers, which is truly magnificent. If you haven't seen it, track it down. It's arguably the best Western ever made.

  4. Hello SJ. I do stand corrected. I knew Wayne won for True Grit, but having just watched Rooster Cogburn I had that film on the mind. I have not seen The Quiet Man. But I have seen The Searchers and The Shootist. It has been years since I've watched them. I may add them to the watchlist and revisit them.



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