A film review by Craig J. Koban September 10, 2016

RANK:  #4


2016, R, 102 mins.


Chris Pine as Toby  /  Ben Foster as Tanner  /  Jeff Bridges as Marcus  /  Gil Birmingham as Alberto Parker  /  Katy Mixon as Jenny Ann  /  Dale Dickey as Elsie

Directed by David Mackenzie  /  Written by Taylor Sheridan

David Mackenzie’s HELL OR HIGH WATER is superficially about rural Texan bank robbers.  It’s about so much more, though, in the manner it taps into the universally understood themes of the stinging pain of poverty, the fundamental lack of options to escape from it, and how good people make categorically bad decisions out of pure financial desperation.  

It creates a fully authentic portrait of its economically ravaged time and place and how they form a viselike stranglehold on a couple of poor souls that turn to crime to escape from its clutches…almost to the point of empathy.  That’s ultimately what makes HELL OR HIGH WATER stand tall and proudly apart from so many other films about small town criminals: Its fascinatingly humanistic in approach and rarely presents a simplistic black and white view of law and order.  

The film’s premise could not be any simpler: Two brothers engage in a series of bank robberies to ironically pay off their escalating debt with their bank, and all while trying to elude capture from the authorities.  It reeks of overt familiarity, but Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who penned last year’s masterful SICARIO) never allow HELL OR HIGH WATER to become submerged in dime-a-dozen cops and robbers troupes.  There are genuine attempts here to make us understand and relate to both the crooks and the law enforcement officers here.  The siblings in question commit their crimes not because they’re heinous or dangerous fiends (well, one isn’t, anyway), but rather because they’re at their absolute economic wits end.  The characters on the side of the law have reasonable motives here too, mostly because they want to put an end to some obvious illegal activity.  Mackenzie is trying to make an enthralling character piece, to be sure, but he’s also trying to provide some commentary on the infuriating methods that some banks and financial instructions employ to rob hard working, but struggling people of their livelihoods.  HELL OR HIGH WATER simmers with more palpable low-income, working class rage than most other films of its kind. 



Comparisons of this film to the works of the Coen Brothers (like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and Cormac McCarthy seem inevitable and apt in the way it captures the story’s inherent desolation and despair while telling it in a spare, yet succinct tone.  The film opens with a low-key bank robbery committed by the aforementioned brothers – Toby (in the best performance of his young career by Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster, a chameleon-like actor that’s demonstrated remarkable role immersion when given just the right part) – and, at face value, they come off as somewhat naïve amateurs, but their overall grand scheme is fairly ingenious, which is ostensibly about them achieving comeuppance on their bank that has slowly and methodically been driving them financially into the ground without any chance of recovery.  It should be noted, however, that details regarding these brothers and their plan are relayed slowly and patiently to viewers, which affords us the opportunity to get to know them and somehow comprehend why they’re doing what they’re doing. 

The brothers are painted as polar opposites: Toby is the reserved and calculating one, never wanting to take any unnecessary risks, whereas his sibling (whom has done hard time before) is the more reckless of the pair that seems to throw caution to the wind a bit too leisurely.  One particular impromptu robbery (perpetrated by Tanner and met with infuriating frustration by Toby) leaves a rather large bread crumb clue to local law enforcement officials, in particular the soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton (a grizzled and raspy Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a duo of Texas Rangers that pool their resources together to end the brothers’ robberies once and for all.  The core relationship between the semi-alcoholic and racist Marcus and the half Mexican/half Indian Alberto makes for an intrinsically compelling character dynamic in the film.  Alberto is forced to put up with Marcus’ constant bigoted jabs directed at his mixed ethnicity, but even when verbal sparks fly between them they nevertheless have a shared respect for one another.  Marcus and Alberto are very savvy lawmen when they’re not trash talking each other. 

HELL OR HIGH WATER is an absolute actor’s paradise and contains bountiful performances of genuine texture.  Bridges has played roles like this before, but he’s never come off as so beleaguered, breathless, and frankly old in a film before.  Despite his unhealthy physical façade lurks a shrewd deductive mind that knows how to piece clues together to ensnare his prey.  He’s paired so well with Birmingham, who occupies, in my opinion, the most brutally honest and melancholic moment in the film when he quietly relays to Marcus – in a soulful monologue while staking out a bank – how his people owned the land 150 years ago that’s now overseen by white men…and now banks are doing to the white man what they did to Native Americans a century-plus ago.  Never before in a film has dialogue been so refreshingly and heartbreakingly frank and laced with sarcastic irony, which is a testament to Sheridan’s painstakingly measured screenplay.   

Chris Pine is often overlooked for being a thanklessly solid actor because (a) he’s played so many roles in his career (like Captain Kirk) displaying the cocky and rascally charm of an alpha male and (b) in other roles that he has excelled in he’s quietly and more effectively understated, often flying under critic's radars.  Pine is so nonchalantly in the zone here as his deeply flawed and guarded bank robber that he really just becomes one with the role…and he’s never been so soft-spokenly charismatic and sadly poignant in a film.  Foster has the more juicy and showy role as Toby’s hot headed brother that’s an unwanted wild card, but Foster is so damn good at harnessing loose canon/ticking time bombs parts that you can hardly fault the actor for playing them so often.  Pine and Foster have remarkable chemistry in HELL OR HIGH WATER and make for one of the most effective and credible brother dynamics I’ve seen in a film as of late.  There’s rarely a moment that they occupy here when you doubt the veracity of their lifelong love/hate bond. 

As a modern day western, HELL OR HIGH WATER is as masterful as any of the great period genre efforts for relaying its stark sense of harshly beautiful, yet suffocatingly desolate atmosphere.  Mackenzie’s small town America is presented as a wasteland of pathetic inopportunity, and shot after shot in the film communicates how these collapsing and dust covered locales reiterates the monetary misery that plagues its characters.  It's a place of chronic bankruptcy and debt, and one in which people sheepishly try to eek out what lives they have left in the world.  Mackenzie invites viewers in and asks them to re-evaluate what the notion of a just and unjust American outlaw truly means.  Toby is a good and honorable family man that wants to right financial wrongs, but he simply uses the wrong outlet (and some bad timing and decisions) to make that happen.  He’s certainly not an everyman hero either, and as the film heads towards its finale it’s very clear that the scope and ambition of his crimes have veered off course into something violent and treacherous.  

HELL OR HIGH WATER ends on a skillfully hushed, yet undeniably powerful moment between two characters having a very tricky conversation where they lay all of their cards on the table without actually saying they are, which is awfully hard to do unless you have an adept script to back you up.  You also gain a sense that there are no definitive winners and losers amidst all of the film’s chaos, just discomfiting closure that still leaves hints of potential and future hardships and unease for the film’s personas.  I loved how HELL OR HIGH WATER abandons the idea of concluding the film without obligatory standoffs involving shootouts and bloodshed and instead hones in on its complex personalities and their equally convoluted ties with each other.  Considering that the summer film calendar was regrettably defined by so many tired remakes, lazy sequels, and forgettable blockbusters hopelessly stuck in pure cliché mode, HELL OR HIGH WATER has proudly emerged as one of the struggling season’s best surprises as a spectacularly directed and impeccably performed western heist thriller that aches with an elegiac rendering of moral anguish.  


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