I’m pleasantly surprised. David Mackenzie’s neo-Western wasn’t even on my radar. I generally don’t expect much from the second week of August. That’s kind of a dead period for movie releases. The summer is winding down. Kids are gearing up for back-to-school and most major film studios have already issued their heavy hitters. Lionsgate is not one of the “Big Six” studios, so maybe it’s not surprising that such an awards-worthy production (and potential blockbuster) would have such an atypical release date. However Lionsgate IS the largest and most successful mini-major studio in North America, so I wouldn’t exactly classify them as an indie either. Regardless, I was prompted to watch this on a good recommendation. I’m so glad I did.
Since the traditional Western takes place in the later half of the 19th century, I probably shouldn’t place Hell or High Water in that genre. The setting is present-day West Texas. The American frontier setting certainly confuses things. It’s unquestionably a heist picture. On that everyone will agree. The story is simple. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster respectively) plan a series of robberies targeting various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in an effort to buy back their family farm. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in hot pursuit along with his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
The narrative details a series of stick-ups like you’d find in an old western but set in today’s modern day Texas. Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material. He is brilliant at establishing characters. His last movie, the underseen British prison drama Starred Up, also excelled in this area. Naturally a lot of credit should also go to the crackerjack script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Gradually the screenwriter reveals layers to these brothers, Toby and Tanner. At first the two appear to be one and the same – bank robbers. As the chronicle develops, we’re given motives and backstories and emotional temperaments that play out in little dialogues with various people along the way. Each vignette uncovers more depth to these people. A flirtatious conversation with Toby from a waitress (a noteworthy Katy Mixon) in a diner, is deceptively mundane taken at face value. Yet her wistful exchange exposes a heartbreaking yearning for so much more in her life.
She’s merely one component in an incredible ensemble. Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton. The grizzled, old fashioned Texas ranger is not such a stretch for the veteran actor anymore. Still, he’s wonderful. Ditto his partner Alberto Parker, a marshal whose half-Comanche/half-Mexican roots are subject to his constant teasing. The focus revolves around their pursuit of the brothers. The younger duo is united in the same dirty business, but they are rather different. Ben Foster has always been a bit of a chameleon. He’s mesmerizing. His portrayal is just as intense as you’d expect. However Chris Pine’s soulful work is the performance of his career. His understated achievement is so quietly expressive. I thought I knew the actor. He’s a revelation.
In this account, no one person is all good or all bad. Toby and Tanner are clearly in the wrong. Yet we are given valid reasons to hate these financial institutions – the source of foreclosed houses and crushed dreams. Are these brothers a modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not exactly, although you’d be forgiven for making the connection. Rooting for these guys is similarly problematic, but this is a tale with even deeper shades of gray. There are so many surprises. One violent altercation inadvertently provides a cogent defense for carrying a concealed weapon. The mentality of the vigilante perspective is presented so rationally, I was a bit taken aback. There’s sort of an odd mix of emotion that fluctuates wildly between compassion and disgust for these lawbreakers. Sympathy turns to aversion over the course of the narrative. It’s the way these little unforeseen vignettes plays out that make this character study so captivating. One of the most noteworthy dramas of 2016.