HELL OR HIGH WATER Review

Hell or High Water opens with a 360° shot of a small, West Texas town that is more or less deserted. Panning what looks to be one of the main roads through town the audience is meant to note the several for sale signs, the others offering loans, and most prominently a piece of graffiti that states, "3 tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us." Hell or High Water immediately tells us its stance on the story it will be relaying in that it concludes this opening, single take with two masked men entering the small town's bank and requesting only loose bills, no stacks or, in other words, the banks money and not the peoples. In this expertly crafted opening sequence director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) displays a knack for visually highlighting exactly what he wants us to focus on. Beyond the visual style Mackenzie adopts for this story that captures the flatlands of West Texas and its expansive plains in gorgeous hues is his adeptness at capturing the necessary atmosphere to complement the specific kind of tone which naturally influences the overall mood of his film. In short, everything falls into place perfectly with the pacing of the picture which is as close to a perfectly paced film as anything I've seen this year. We are thrown into the action of a bank robbery that is quickly undermined by the inherent humor that comes from human interactions while noting specifically the mentality of these Texans in which the movie will very much hang its trust and pride. The setting is established, the framing of this setting's attitude and character is made apparent, and only then we are introduced to the men behind the ski masks-brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine). As with the setting we can see who these two brothers are from very early on. Foster's Tanner is the free-wheeling, living in the moment sort that will take whatever action makes him feel good whereas Pine's Toby lives more by a moral code with his eyes firmly planted on the end goal rather than what feels best in the moment. Toby doesn't like to deviate from the plan, but Tanner couldn't be more primed to be unreliably ecstatic as he's just been released from prison less than a year prior to the events we're seeing. It is in these two characters that Hell or High Water finds its most valuable assets; relaying its many ideas through the guise of two desperate men sticking it to the man.

Toby (Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) become bank robbers in a last ditch effort to save their family farm.
If this and writer Taylor Sheridan's last screenplay for Sicario are any indication of what is to come count his directorial debut next year, Wind River, among my most anticipated for 2017. Sheridan has crafted a film where the old west meets the new one and the characters at the heart of it have crafted a genuinely brilliant plot in which they must carefully execute to get to where they want. Sheridan, as expected, employs human nature to create obstacles along the way including the appearance of Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Setting his two sets of partners on something of a parallel course for destinations that simultaneously feel pre-defined yet consistently surprising Sheridan gives his genre movie a freshness and singularity that can be difficult to tap into when operating in such a storied style. Sheridan fails to fall into any genre trappings as he pairs his characters intelligent scheme with some of the best written dialogue in a movie this year. I realize I've said that twice now about two different attributes this movie sports, but Hell or High Water absolutely excels in the small talk and humor that only propels that pacing forward despite the plot being a slow burn that only reveals the whole picture as we enter its third act. While Sheridan manages all of these things really well in his screenplay what he is really getting after-the larger sort of analogy if you will-is explaining the repercussions of stock brokers and bankers actions on the last people they might think about when conducting their actions. Sheridan, while writing a new-fangled western of sorts, is more interested in dissecting the lengths this world generally thought to be run by outlaws must go to in order to keep this already minimal lifestyle intact. For no matter this branded reputation, it was nearly impossible to escape the post-2008 world where financial crisis spread into every caveat of our civilization. By presenting this picture of a modern disaster through the lens of people continuing to lose their land Sheridan and McKenzie together deliver a perfect balance of old and new, of how ignorance must give way to insight, and how bad things must sometimes be done in order for victims to prevail.

Elevating the already superb script and filmmaking approach are the performances on display. Not only in Pine and Foster, though their chemistry and camaraderie is as authentic as any between real brothers, but in the more straightforward roles that both Bridges and Birmingham fill. Bridges' Hamilton is the cop on the edge of retirement who has already lost his wife and is therefore loathing the thought of no longer working rather than looking forward to it. He is the epitome of what one would expect of a man of a certain generation to act and speak like in this region of the country and by partnering him with an Indian who is also part Mexican one can expect a certain amount of racial slurs that are all meant in good fun. By giving audiences a back and forth between the competing plights of Hamilton and Parker as they track the "bad guys" to Tanner and Toby trying to stay one step ahead of them the movie keeps its tension on alert, allowing each scene to beg the question of what might these characters do next. It is through the honest performances that we're made to actually care about what happens to them next. Hell or High Water is one of those movies that you won't soon forget, but not only because it has a certain emotional resonance to it, but because there are certain scenes that will likely be referred to as classics should this thing catch on once it hits home video and streaming services that allow it to reach a wider audience. Whether it be the "What don't you want?" scene that takes place in a diner and features Hamilton and Parker squaring off against (or rather yielding to) an older no-nonsense waitress (Margaret Bowman), the final bank robbery and only real action sequence of the film that has been built up with such a methodical and tension-riddled burn that it can't help but be explosive when blood comes pouring out, to the denouement that features a conversation in the classic form of cowboy poetry where what is meant and what is said are two entirely different things, but neither party is ignorant to the truth. The citizens of the towns, the tellers at the banks, they all feel authentic, but it is the appeal of Pine's Toby in his upstanding views that force him to do bad things mixed with Foster's Tanner and his desire to test the limits by seeing how many bad things he can get away with that make the film as much a character study as an out and out action drama.

Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned the case of tracking the brother bank robbers.
Not to be outdone-Bridges and Birmingham form just as formidable a duo with the major difference being they have the law on their side. Though Birmingham's Parker is the silent and stoic type-entrenched in his routine and well-pressed uniforms-feeling little to no need to give into his partners small digs and jokes about his heritage it is these things that both of them know he will miss the most once Hamilton finally does retire. Bridges is more or less doing what he typically does-this time playing The Dude as a modern Texas Ranger rather than a U.S. Marshal in 1873 as he did in 2010's True Grit, but it is effective nonetheless. Bridges knows where best to apply his particular characterizations and the script for Hell or High Water is no doubt improved by his presence. Katy Mixon is rather fantastic in her limited screen time with the likes of character actors such as Dale Dickey (the first person we see in the film) and Kevin Rankin (Dallas Buyers Club) popping up throughout to provide smaller, but just as effective moments that carry the brisk hour and forty minutes Hell or High Water spends on its narrative through to the end. Still, this is Pine's film and he carries it admirably proving more than ever why he has become a movie star beyond the role of Captain Kirk. There is a presence to his performance that can't be explained in any literal sense, but more he simply exudes a charisma and produces this sense of sympathy that audiences will latch onto and root for. Thus bringing about the moral ambiguity of the piece that Sheridan, Mackenzie, and his two leads in Pine and Bridges explore through their opposing positions in society despite the honor of their intentions being very much the same. Combined with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautiful photography, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' original score as well as several appropriate soundtrack selections, and the surprising amount of humor the film carries through lines like, "On your last day in the nursing home you'll think of me and giggle," and "Drive like a school teacher with all this stuff in the back," to even landing a "That's what she said," joke Hell or High Water literally packs in everything one could hope for in a piece of entertainment. It delivers an emotional payload, it's funny, and it talks about something bigger than itself while perfectly encapsulating those bigger ideas in its small story. Unable to find anything wrong with the film and having no complaints, I have no doubt this will end up near the top of my favorite films of 2016.