Review: Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water
Directed by: David McKenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
A damn near perfect film from talented director Mackenzie and writer of the similarly confident, slow-burn thriller Sicario. It’s the voice of of the characters that really sets the film apart. So few film writers have the same level of voice as do playwrights. It is due to that voice that this film about two bank robbing brothers stands out and above any bank heist or Western genre films from recent memory. Set in the recession-plagued dust of West Texas two brothers set to robbing branches of the bank that is set to foreclose on the land they grew up on.
Foster has the showier role as the loose-cannon brother with a criminal history. He is afforded shades of character in both his love for his brother and the unexpected backstory that conflicts with his love of crime. Foster has a tendency to overact and that is still true here, but Mackenzie keeps him reigned in enough so that he doesn’t topple the deliberate pace of the film. Pine plays the other brother who is motivated by love of family. It’ll get less attention, but Pine turns off the smarm and seems lived-in with his soft-spoken Toby determined and cautious as the jobs grow more dangerous.
The authorities are hot on their heels, as the brothers only rob drawers in denominations of 20 and under. The cat and mouse factor is keyed in by about to retire Jeff Bridges. One last case and all that jazz. The trickiest part of the film is balancing the humor (because it does have a few good laughs) from Bridges’ politically incorrect Ranger without it becoming a distraction. His partner is Mexian and Native American, and nigh a scene goes by without Bridges’ character making a crack about it. It seems that it’s there to make a point about these old ideas and old places dying away. His partner Alberto, is shown being hurt by the comments, and in turn Bridges seems hurt that his “humor” isn’t found funny. It does enough to humanize Alberto (and the added bonus of a strong performance from Birmingham) that it plays as a critique of Old West dying in the face of New West.
As Toby and Tanner close in on their final goal (which isn’t fully revealed until well into the film) everything culminates into one very well-staged shootout. Real stakes are present, and the filmmaking never falters. Mackenzie’s opening long-shot is a panoramic beauty, and really sets the stage for the intentional pace and explosions of unexpected and visceral violence. And for a Scot he does a great job of making Texas a character in the film. From the vistas and dust to the running gag of everyone having a gun. Throw in a score from Western specialist Nic Cave & Warren Ellis and you have familiar elements rearranged just enough, and with enough expertise it feels new and exciting.
Outside of some obvious ADR and the wince-inducing racist jokes, there is only a few other passages of dialogue that hit a bit on the nose (white people taking Indian land, banks taking it back). It also sticks the landing in the fatalistic ways you expect, and in a way you may not. It’s a gem of a film that deserves to be more than an indie favorite. A victory for mid-budget adult-film making.
If you liked Hell or High Water check out: Sicario, Starred Up, The Proposition