Hell or High Water (2016)
Dir. David McKenzie; Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
[2.5 / 4 stars]
Rusty broken-down trucks. Bail bond agencies. Tiny roadside businesses. Open fields, empty sky, mountains in the distance. The landscape for Hell or High Water is dusty, desolate, and poor. Old farmers hang out in roadside cafes, order nothing, shoot the breeze. In this wasteland, divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) convinces his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) – convicted for murdering their abusive father – to carry out bank robberies across the state. They target the branches of Texas Midlands Bank, which bullied their ailing mother up until her death and is now days away from foreclosing on her property. As the robberies accumulate, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), weeks away from retirement, takes the case, and a chase ensues. As promising as this may sound, the film leaves no lasting impression. While it is well made, it doesn’t have the emotional impact that I hoped for.
The film’s greatest strength is in its acting. Pine delivers a haunting performance, despite his quietness and few lines. He wants to break the cycle of poverty in his family by getting his kids the family land, where oil was recently discovered. He is fixated on making sure his children don’t have to struggle as he did, and this determination, in addition to his determination to keep his wayward brother out of trouble, consumes him during the film. The film’s central energy and the mastermind behind his and his brother’s exploits, Toby moves through the film with a single-minded focus.
Ben Foster, on the other hand, is a loose cannon. Crude and unpredictable, he’s not the best partner for bank robbing. At one point, Tanner robs a bank without telling Toby, suddenly sprints out carrying cash, bills fluttering out behind him, and screams at him to start the car. As Toby later asks him, “How have you stayed out of prison for a year?” Yet the pair have a close camaraderie; they trust each other. At one point, Tanner explains that he knows they won’t get away with the robberies because he “never met nobody got away with anything, ever.” So Toby asks him why he agreed to do it in the first place, and Tanner replies “Because you asked, little brother.”
And Jeff Bridges is… well, Jeff Bridges, with the same mouth-full-of-gravel way of speaking and aloof disrespect that he demonstrated in True Grit (2010). Although Hamilton’s retirement is on the horizon, he can’t quite bring himself to let go of the Texas Ranger lifestyle and struggles to accept that this is his last case. The screenplay grants him some brilliant lines. At one point, he’s interviewing witnesses to a robbery. He’s looking for the bank owner, and when a suited man walks by, Hamilton says “That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house. Excuse me,” and strolls over. Despite his lighthearted manner and ceaseless teasing of his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), he nonetheless possesses a fierce loyalty and focus that make him a capable match for the Howard brothers.
In addition, the cinematography is not bad. There are some nice shots – wide open expanses of space, rows of dingy suburban houses, a windmill on a dusty hill. They lend the film a strong sense of place. However, McKenzie goes a bit overboard. There are many scenes in the beginning of the film like this; it’s like we’re being hit over the head with how poor, rural, and lonesome the landscape is. A few well-crafted shots would have accomplished the same effect and taken up much less time.
On the whole, Hell or High Water is somewhat anticlimactic, which is especially disappointing given that there’s nothing obviously wrong with the film- the actors are talented, the cinematography decent, and the plot entertaining. But it’s simply a mixture of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (2007), both of which are better films. While Hell or High Water is worth watching if you enjoy the Western genre, it covers a story that has been told time and again, and it adds nothing new.