Hell or High Water (2016)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on August 20, 2016 @ tonymacklin.net.

Hell or High Water is an elegy for the disenfranchised.

It's like a film from a past generation, steeped in alienation. And laced with irony.

Set in "dead towns" of West Texas, it's a journey from a long-gone past into a wasteland of the present.

Hell or High Water is the engrossing story of two brothers who become bank robbers and the old Texas Ranger who pursues them. They are in a world that is in its dying throes. It's changing into a place where they don't belong. It's cruel and inhuman, where struggles seem desperate and hopeless. The setting is a foreboding character.

Toby Howard (Chris Pine), estranged from his wife, is committed to acting for a future generation - his two sons. His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) - an ex-felon who is impulsive and reckless and seeking excitement - is along for the ride.

Together they rob small town banks. As their binge escalates, it becomes more violent.

Veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), approaching retirement, see the robberies as his final big challenge. He commits himself to catching the robbers. It's a fateful odyssey.

Hell or High Water has a slew of producers - there are more producers than cattle. But they don't seem to have been too much of an obstacle. Director David Mackenzie develops his film effectively. It begins with an almost dull, washed-out quality. At first, the characters and scenery are not engaging. But Mackenzie builds to a gripping tension.

And ultimately, as with Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde (1967), we do relate strongly to the outlaws. Hell or High Water also has a connection with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. As in that novel, the banks are the villain. And Chris Pine could be reminiscent of Henry Fonda's Tom Joad in John Ford's film.

The evocative cinematography of Giles Nuttgens creates a world of dust and damage, rust and ruin. He has a bevy of meaningful shots: a strand of barbed wire, three crosses in a store's outside wall, the number 66 in the far distance, cattle escaping a fire, a piece of rusted structure, expanses of barren scrub land, and the remnants of deserted cars and deteriorated houses. It's a grave new world.

The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan is clever and thought-provoking. Dualities abound: 2 brothers, 2 Texas Rangers, 2 women have died, 2 sons, 2 waitresses, 2 vegetables - corn or green beans, 2 states - Texas and Oklahoma, 2 significant victims, 2 survivors.

One bit of a contrivance is the victim of a sniper, but generally the themes are extremely relevant, and the plot and characterization are credible.

Sheridan captures a bleak world in which change is threatening and destabilizing. Weaponry has grown. Banks now are shifting to digital cameras - a nice inside joke. It's world of reverse mortgages and foreclosure. Ironically Toby uses the bank against itself.

The acting is convincing. Chris Pine give gravitas to the maneuvering Toby. Ben Foster simmers and spurts as the erratic Tanner.

Jeff Bridges gives wonderful grit and charm to the wily veteran lawman. [Actual Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, who died June 15, 2016, schooled Bridges in the attitude and behavior of a Ranger.]

Some of the banter between Bridges and Gil Birmingham, who plays the Ranger who is his Marcus' partner, has the feel of improvisation. Bridges has fun as Marcus with some of the digs at his partner's heritage - Alberto is a half-breed with Mexican blood. The dialogue takes some impolite pokes. But that adds to the credibility and the fitful attempts at camaraderie.

Toby's wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) is a skimpy character, almost an afterthought. But two waitress add humanity to the film. Katy Mixon is sympathetic as a waitress who is loyal to Toby, and Margaret Bowman, who was in No Country for Old Men (2007), is funny as the gruff old woman who has no interest in pleasantries when she takes an order from Marcus and Alberto.

Even though they are minor characters, they add life and weary spirit to Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water is about lost causes in a world of greed and alienation.

But in Hell or High Water, spirit survives.

Most of all, that's what makes it a memorable film.

© 2000-2024 Tony Macklin