REVIEW: Hell or High Water [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: August 12th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: CBS Films
Director(s): David Mackenzie
Writer(s): Taylor Sheridan

“I ain’t speeding”

It wasn’t long after his run as above-board Deputy Chief David Hale on “Sons of Anarchy” that Taylor Sheridan would find himself caught in awards season platitudes with Sicario, a film earning three Oscar nominations despite his screenplay not quite making the cut. Well he has a second change this January as his earlier script of gritty Texas survival under the poverty line—a 2012 Black List inclusion—has arrived with David Mackenzie‘s stewardship. Hell or High Water utilizes similar themes of determined, smart vengeance and bittersweet resolutions, it’s carefully-drawn characters caught in the complexities of their lives with little to combat a trajectory seemingly destined from birth. They’ll try their hardest to overcome their presumed fates, but they’ll be ready should it meet them along the way.

Sheridan and Mackenzie waste no time throwing us into the action as the camera stalks Texas Midland Bank employee Elsie (Dale Dickey) from car to door. As soon as the keys are in the lock there’s a gun in her face, Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) using an aggressive tone to scare her into being the malleable tool he and younger brother Toby (Chris Pine) need to fulfill their mission. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven, though, and they aren’t safe crackers with years of experience and massive bankrolls to prepare for every wrinkle that may occur. No, they have to improvise when Elsie explains the cash is all in the safe. Just because they only want loose bills under notes of one-hundred doesn’t mean its simply there for the taking.

Toby and Tanner receive their spoils, but it not going as smoothly as it could is crucial to setting the tone for what follows. Hell or High Water isn’t a comedy by any means and yet I found myself laughing often, the accessibility of these characters proving authentic and humanizing enough for me to hope everyone comes out alive. One could call this resonant depth a red flag that they won’t, but until the bullets inevitably fly we sit back and enjoy the ride on both sides of the fence. Because just as ex-con Tanner (recently removed from a ten-year stint) and his otherwise squeaky-clean baby brother (until today) rib on each other, so too do the Rangers (Jeff Bridges‘ Marcus and Gil Birmingham‘s Alberto) on their tail.

This is a character-driven film despite the idea of robbers running amuck through western Texas and Mackenzie—especially after Starred Up—is the perfect director to bring Sheridan’s words to life. While four banks get hit, the Howards aren’t looking to hurt people or attract more attention than their timetable already warrants. They’re specifically targeting this company for a reason yet to be revealed, each building in the midst of surveillance system upgrades and rarely visited on non-paydays by anyone save an old cowboy who found a box of coins that morning. These banks are introduced as a symbol for the decline of the working class, an establishment that’s quite literally consuming those who once did business with them. It’s not how they’re robbed that matters, it’s why.

So it’s Mackenzie’s job to let those events take a backseat to the men engaged in making them happen. He lets their natural humor shine by using Tanner’s fearlessness and Toby’s obvious inexperience in and stomach for the job to the audience’s benefit. There’s more than meets the eye despite these two being prototypical rednecks with tragic pasts and rap sheets to boot. We sense what they’re doing is noble and we appreciate the elder’s excitement in the criminal aspect because we know he’s doing it for Toby. He’s toeing a line he’s crossed once before because his brother asked him to go on this purposeful journey to change the future—not for them, but so Toby’s boys will never have to suffer as they did.

Their plan’s working despite its hiccups. Life happens and how they handle those wonky circumstances goes a long way towards how they’ll escape the fallout if at all. The same goes for Marcus and Alberto, a seasoned veteran on probably his last hunt with his optimistic if less experienced partner prone to receiving racial slurs as love taps of respect. How they handle the case—the way they speak to witnesses, use local support, and embrace the adrenaline rush leaving the office supplies—puts them on a collision course with the Howards that could see them losing as much or more no matter the side of the law they inhabit. They’re cowboys with badges accustomed to the Tanners of the world. Toby’s involvement, however, ensures the outcome’s unpredictability.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis‘ music casts a somber elegiac atmosphere as the sun rises and sets upon the dusty abandoned roads of a once promising land. Sheridan writes these boys an opportunity to do right by their family’s name even if it means tarnishing it in the eyes of God. This is a story about reclaiming life from the capitalist villains of modern America as well as our growing resentments towards the law as a path for justice. This is concealed weapon country with wannabe vigilantes on every corner willing to do his/her part. Marcus not only has to combat the boys wreaking havoc under his nose for relative pennies, he must also defuse the desire of citizens chomping at the bit to volunteer themselves as heroes.

It’s an authentic slice of life with waitresses trying to keep a roof over their children’s heads (Katy Mixon‘s memorable Jenny Ann) and ex-wives shouldering the brunt of ex-husbands unable to pay child support in a town with dwindling job prospects (Marin Ireland‘s Debbie). They’re people who’ve been screwed by the system and left high and dry through technicalities and legal red tape. Toby’s no saint, but his antihero motivations can’t help appearing justified and hopeful. Nothing is perfect as the bodies that fall prove, but neither was the world that failed his morally centered father of two to ignite the whirlwind onscreen. We can hold Toby responsible for planning everything and letting Tanner run free, but in the end he was pushed just the same.

There’s a price to how we’re currently living. Either the poor are forgotten to languish in despair or forced to rise up and potentially harm good people while those at fault remain unscathed. Hell or High Water isn’t two hicks with a good plan against two Rangers enjoying the chase. Both pairs are in the same boat, fending for scraps at the behest of a bank screwing the former and enlisting the latter. It’s a parable on today’s socio-economic climate as bittersweet western with relatable characters barely surviving. Pine’s never been better, Bridges is outstanding, and Foster and Birmingham support them simultaneously as foils and equals. Being moral isn’t always being right anymore and this quartet of Texans struggling to stay afloat now knows that better than anyone.

[1] (Left to right) Ben Foster and Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Photo credit: Lorey Sebastian
[2] (Left to right) Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Photo credit: Lorey Sebastian
[3] (Left to right) Ben Foster and Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER.

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