Hell or High Water (2016)
Directed by David Mackenzie
Produced by Braden Aftergood and 14 others
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens
Edited by Jake Roberts
Lionsgate DVD – library (1:42)
Hell or High Water is a story set in modern-day West Texas directed by a Scottish director. I was stunned to learn this since David Mackenzie obviously knows the place and its people so well. He also knows that his film’s vision goes far beyond that of a modern-day Western/crime picture, which it does, sometimes spectacularly.
In one of the film’s opening shots, we see a building with the spray-painted words, “3 tours of Iraq but no bailout for us.” We see signs for businesses closing, debt-relief signs, abandoned buildings and streets that literally put the “ghost” in West Texas ghost towns. The only industry that seems to be thriving is the banking industry. That’s why brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, above left) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine, above right) have decided to rob a few.
The Howard boys could not be more different. Tanner is an amoral, reckless, and sometimes maniacal man, an ex-con who’s been in and out of jail for much of his adult life. Toby (Chris Pine in a very non-Captain Kirk-ish role) is quiet, reserved and does more thinking before breakfast than Tanner does in a month. Tanner was in jail while Toby took care of their dying mother. Now that she’s gone, the brothers are united in finding a way to pay off the family debts and provide for the future of Toby’s young sons. In West Texas, robbing banks seems the only choice.
Tanner and Toby are an interesting pair of outlaws. They’re smart enough to rob banks early before customers arrive and to forego the large traceable bills, yet dumb enough not to have a viable getaway plan. These guys are never on the same page.
We also get a look at two other men, police officers on the trail of the Howard brothers. Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, right) and Native American Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, left) behave like an old married couple, trading quips and insults at every opportunity. Their chemistry together is wonderful. Hamilton’s character often recalls an earlier Bridges role, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (2010) as well as Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men (2007). Although we fear he might, Mackenzie doesn’t allow the Rangers’ relationship to descend into caricature. In one of the film’s best scenes, Hamilton and Parker are sitting across the street from a small-town bank, playing Hamilton’s hunch that the brothers are going to rob it next.
Parker: “How is anybody supposed to make a living here?”
Hamilton: “People have been making a living here for 150 years.”
Parker: “Well, people have lived in caves for 150,000 years… A long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians… till someone came along and killed them, broke ‘em down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, this was all my ancestor’s land. Everything you see. Everything you saw yesterday till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now it’s been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. (points to the bank) It’s those sons of bitches right here.”
Just from that one scene, we can tell that Hell or High Water is primarily about ownership and identity, big themes. It’s also about change and wanting to change cycles that have been in place for years, perhaps centuries. People in this part of the country often feel trapped. Toby feels this and clearly wants something better for his sons, but unless he takes it upon himself, he knows that’s not likely to happen.
Near the end of the film, Mackenzie gives us another powerhouse scene between Toby and Hamilton, a scene so filled with tension and anxiety that anything could happen. Toby tries to explain that life for him, his brother, and the rest of this West Texas community has largely been a “sickness passing from generation to generation. It infects every person you know. But not my boys.”
I have traveled to West Texas twice: once in 1983 and again in 1999. Very little had changed there in that 16-year gap between visits. I imagine not much has changed in the 18 years since my last visit. There’s a sense of time creeping forward in a place that largely stands still. I suspect that those who live there who want change either leave or resign themselves to the fact that there are things that are bigger than yourself, things that have gone on with little or no variation for 150 or 150,000 years. Hell or High Water understands this and forces us to come to grips with the problems of both the Howard brothers and the two Texas Rangers. You could also say that the film is about two sets of brothers; actual brothers and brothers in law enforcement. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
When you consider that the average cost of a movie from a major studio in 2007 was somewhere in the neighborhood of $65 million (which does not count distribution and marketing), Hell or High Water’s estimated $12 million budget qualifies it as a “small” film. Yet since it’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, the film has gained quite a lot of word of mouth and the DVD/Blu-ray sales are impressive.
Hell or High Water is a good film, maybe even a very good film. At times, it approaches greatness. It’s not perfect: I think the film is about 10 minutes too long, most of that coming from just a few too many scenes (mainly concerned with character development) that basically do the same thing. Two events happen in the film that are too predictable: one comes from an obvious musical cue that’s entirely unnecessary; the other from having watched enough buddy movies over the years to know what’s about to happen next. These are certainly not deal-breakers. This is a film you should see. I can’t wait to see what Mackenzie does next.
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