Hell or High Water
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham,
Denis Villeneuve’s creative direction with “Sicario” last year was nothing short of masterful. His work, so good, that it nearly overshadowed the stellar script by actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. The sophomore script from Sheridan is the real main character in Hell or High Water and the most original writing I’ve seen this year. Similar to The Coen Brothers “No Country For Old Men”, “Hell or High Water” is part crime, part suspense as it captures the spirit of West Texas. While the film moves at a moderate pace, director David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (“Dom Hemingway”) take time to explore front porch sunset behind a ranch or hold just a little bit longer on a character taking a moment. It’s a rare film that succeeds both because of its centerpiece moments and small intimate understanding of surroundings.
“If y’all leave right now, all you’re guilty of it being stupid,” Elise (Dale Dickey) says to a pair of bank robbers who nab her on the way in to open the bank. She can’t see their faces under the ski masks but brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) have concocted a plan to rob small local banks outside their Midland, Texas home. Tanner is the hot head, dare devil with a vile temper, recently released from prison. Young brother Toby owes a small fortune in child support, and is losing the fight on their family ranch. Their plan is specific, hit the small banks unlikely to have modern technology and security cameras, only taking untraceable petty cash from the teller drawers. Lubbock area Texas Ranger Marcus (Bridges) a few weeks from dreaded retirement and his half Indian, half Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) try to guess the suspects next move and bank, as they navigate one dried up town after another.
It’s a movie within a movie, containing everything in the western genre that would appeal to audiences from coast to coast.
“You damn right I gotta gun on me,” remarks an elderly resident who happens to be in the bank when the brothers arrive. “Hell or High Water” is just as much of a commentary on (West) Texas as it is a thrill ride. My only fear is that viewers unfamiliar with this specific part of the country might not understand why Margaret Bowman (“Bernie”, “No Country For Old Men”) who plays the surly old T-Bone waitress steals the show in one scene. “What don’t you want?”. Or the hilarious, but desperate nature of dinner maid Jenny Ann (Katy Mixon) as she refuses to hand over tip money that’s evidence. It’s a movie within a movie, containing everything in the western genre that would appeal to audiences from coast to coast, but it’s also similar to Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” in how it portrays the particular attributes of a specific location.
Bridges hasn’t been this good since the last time he played a Texan in “Crazy Heart”, which of course won him an Oscar. Both the Rangers narratives and the bank robbers explore how the modern world is creeping into these sleepy forgotten towns. From discussions on the oil industry, poverty in farming, dying breed of cowboys and the adverse effects of technology on small towns, this emersion into West Texas might not have you ready for a visit, but it certainly brings an understanding to Toby and Tanner’s cause. Despite all the backwards people, dust and desolation, Nuttgens still manages to offer up beauty between the madness and sorrow with his beautiful frames and use of natural light. “Hell or High Water’ isn’t as cerebral as No Country, but it’s faster paced and more accessible to a wider audience and I for one think it’s even better.
It’s films like this that reaffirm my faith in creative and original cinema. Fires relentlessly on all cylinders.