Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Chris Pine (Toby Howard), Ben Foster (Tanner Howard), Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton), Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker), Katy Mixon (Jenny Ann), Dale Dickey (Elsie), Christopher W. Garcia (Randy Howard), Kevin Rankin (Billy Rayburn), Melanie Papalia (Emily).
Watching David Mackenzie’s excellent Hell or High Water – easily one of the best films of the year so far – you cannot help but think back to the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men. Both are crime dramas about greed, in which regular people get involved in something that spirals out of control into inevitable violence. The Coens film is timeless – it was set in 1980, but really could have been set in any Post WWII time in America, as it is ultimately about the way everything has changed, and how you can longer tell the good guys from the bad guys, and how everything has gotten more morally muddied. Hell or High Water has more modest – and timely – ambitions than No Country for Old Men. It is a crime thriller for now – where good people try to do the right thing, and are robbed blind anyway – not by criminals with masks, but by the banks, who will do any and everything they can to make money – people be damned – and do so with the protection of the government. The film centers on two brothers who set out to do the right thing, by doing the wrong thing – and the consequences it brings down on them, and everyone around them.
The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard – two Texas brothers, who really do seem like brothers, despite how different they are. Toby has tried to do the right thing his whole life – he has gotten married, had a couple of son, but that ended in divorce. He has no job, no money and had to spend his time taking care of his dying mother – who just died, and left him everything, including a good sized ranch. But, of course, she owes money to the bank on it – and they’re about to swoop in a take it from him. His brother Tanner has spent years in prison, and never really got a foothold his life – he killed their drunken, abusive father in a “hunting accident” and has been the black sheep of the family ever since. The pair of them team up to rob a series of Texas Midlands banks – the same ones foreclosing on their ranch – but are smart about it. They don’t want the money in the safe, they don’t want $100 bills, and if possible, they want to rob them when very few people are around. The crimes are so small, the FBI doesn’t care. It falls to the Texas Rangers – specifically Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) – just a few weeks shy of retirement – and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – who bicker like an old married couple.
So yes, this is another crime drama about masculinity, and I think it’s safe to say the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel Test – the only female characters of note of Toby’s tired ex-wife, who doesn’t hate him as much as she’s tired of being poor, and him not helping, a bank teller (Dale Dickey) who gives more lip than she probably should to two masked men with guns, and a sensitive waitress (Melanie Papalia), who first takes pity on Toby because of how sad he seems, and then turns fiery when confronted later by Hamilton – who says the large tip he gave her is “evidence”. If the movie seems to be saying anything about Texas women at all, it’s not to piss off them off.
You could well argue that Hell or High Water doesn’t do anything particularly new or groundbreaking – and you wouldn’t be wrong per se. What the film really is though, is a perfectly executed genre piece. The screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan – who wrote last year’s excellent Sicario (this is even better than that one), and what he’s done with the screenplay is create two mismatched male duos – and then makes us like all four characters as individuals and as part of those pairs, before introducing the inevitable violence that the climax of the movie demands. So often in movies, dozens of people are killed, and you don’t feel a thing in the audience – all it is kinetic movement and activity on the screen, that doesn’t mean anything. The modern blockbuster has increasingly become one where whole buildings or cities are destroyed – likely costing thousands of people their lives, and in the audience we’re not supposed to think about it – just sit back and be entertained. Far fewer people die in Hell or High Water – but every single one of those deaths hurt, and it’s not because we know the characters who do (we don’t in a couple of cases), but because of the way Mackenzie directs, and Sheridan writes. The deaths in Hell or High Water hurt because they feel real.
None of the effect the movie has would be possible without the four great central performances in the film. Chris Pine has never been better than he is here – he is an actor who often isn’t called on to do much expect coast on his movie star looks and charm – something he, admittedly does quite well – but here, with a mustache and stubble, and a fine, unexaggerated Texas drawl, he makes Toby into a sad, tragic figure – he’s a good guy pushed into something bad, but he never deludes himself into believing what he is doing is the right thing – just that it’s the only thing he can do for his kids – to break them of the disease of poverty that he hasn’t been able to break any other way. With Tanner, Ben Foster gets to add another “crazy” character to his resume – I really do think Foster wants nothing less than to become the Christopher Walken of his generation – but Tanner’s crazy is more grounded in reality than most of Foster’s ne’er do wells. Like Toby, he doesn’t really suffer under the delusion that they’re doing a good thing – he just doesn’t give a shit anymore. He’s along the ride mostly just because he was honored to be asked by his brother – the only family he’s got, and perhaps the only person who doesn’t hate him. Yes, Foster can go over-the-top in many of his roles – but he never quite does that here – making his performance all the stronger. Marcus Hamilton is the type of role you hire Jeff Bridges for – because even if Bridges decided to phone it in, you’d still get a hell of performance out of him. He doesn’t do that here thankfully – and his work ranks alongside the best work he’s done. It’s a sneaky performance, because of how comedic much of it is – he delights in teasing Alberto about his Indian and Mexican heritage – and doesn’t seem to be taking too much too seriously. But he’s good at his job, and knows exactly what he is doing – nothing gets by him. We immediately like him, and are at ease with him – but he has a few scenes late in the film where that inner steal comes out. Gil Birmingham will get the least amount of praise for his work as Alberto of the four leads – it is, in some ways, a quieter performance than the rest – one that calls on him to lovingly roll his eyes at all the insults that come his way. But he builds a complete character here – and although we see his fate coming, it hits, harder than anything else in the film.
This summer has not been a good one at the movies – especially not if you want mainstream, adult entertainment. The best of the big summer movies have been for families – Finding Dory, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon (even if families didn’t go see two of those – stupid families). Studios either don’t think adults go to the movies, or think we have the mentality of teenagers, who just want to see things blow up real good, with lots of fast editing and action, and a lot of CGI crap floating around. Perhaps then, I – and others – are slightly overrating Hell or High Water – I will admit it, it is certainly possible that after the dull summer movie slate we’ve endured that it’s possible. That when we look back in a few years – or even months – at Hell or High Water, what I’ll see is just a really good genre film, and not the great film I think it is. It’s possible, of course, but I don’t think so. Yes, it’s easier to see the contrast between those other films and Hell or High Water – but there is something special to this film. Sometimes a perfectly executed genre film is just that – and sometimes it’s a little bit more. I think Hell or High Water is that little bit more.