Hell or High Water movie full length review - A gripping tale of modern-day desperadoes.
David Mackenzie's latest film, Hell or High Water, feels like one of those movies that could've been made at any point in cinema's existence.
It is a simple meat-and-potatoes tale of bank heists and blood brothers, the sort of story that great directors from Kubrick and Altman to Arthur Penn and Tarantino have made their staple at one time or another. And though it's set against the woeful landscape of an America in the throes of the most recent economic downtown, you could easily see it taking place in the Dust Bowl era of Bonnie & Clyde.
Working from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (scribe of last year's superior Sicario), Mackenzie sets his film in the Texas midlands, the last frontier against "progress," as the few scattered denizens would call the encroaching destruction of their old-fashioned way of life. Gone are the desperadoes, the Gary Coopers and Jesse Jameses of old, and all that's left are a few dying embers of what had once been the great American dream.
Three such embers are at the heart of Hell or High Water, and it's these three that set the desert fields ablaze in a trail of blood and violence. Two of these three are a pair of brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard?rough country boys who are at once peas in a pod and yet polar opposites. Toby (a sufficiently grunged-up Chris Pine, playing a stoic Southern loner role that somehow bypassed Josh Brolin, who usually corners the market on such parts) is quiet but decent, eking out a hardscrabble existence in a desperate attempt to keep his family ranch from foreclosure. His big brother Tanner is far more erratic and intense, which makes the casting of Ben Foster a no-brainer. Tanner's antics seem downright Tremor Brother-esque; a hard-living ex-jailbird with no compunction against brutality if required.
The brothers have cooked up a scheme to save the family farm as well as get revenge on the faceless banks that have f_cked them over: by pulling a string of penny-ante heists at each branch, taking only cashiers' trays of loose bills (to prevent ink-pack bursts and access to traceable currency). It's a smart play, but also one that requires several jobs in rapid succession. And sooner or later, their luck will inevitably run out.
This is where the third ember comes into play: Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Played as a prickly amalgamation of Rooster Cogburn and Columbo, Jeff Bridges's soon-to-retire lawman decides to pursue the bank job investigation as one final hurrah before he turns in his star. Paired with Gil Birmingham's stalwart, snarky Alberto (who also bears the brunt of his partner's deliberately un- P.C. ribbing), Marcus shrewdly assesses that the thieves are working towards a goal and accurately calculates the locations they'd need to hit in order to meet their quota. But as with every single heist film since the days of old, something goes wrong.
There is a grim edge to Hell or High Water, but it refuses to wallow in it. Instead, it is bleakly funny, fraught with little character foibles sure to get a chuckle or two out of any audience. Even in the tensest moments (and there are more than a few, be forewarned), there is a nevertheless a laid- back undercurrent. In large part, it's due to how easy the three leads slip into their characters and convey decades' worth of life and experience in their performances. Bridges impresses the most, at least for me?there are several moments in the film where he is as good as he ever has been, even as the Dude?and you could almost see yearly spin-offs built around the character on cable TV. Pine, who usually sings best playing zany sorts like in his Carnahan collaborations, nevertheless is very striking as a low-key working joe who nevertheless has a depth of insight far exceeding his rough-hewn appearance. And then there's Foster, who is never anything but riveting when he's on-screen and whose mercurial talents continue to cement him as one of the peak actors around.
Hell or High Water also cements Sheridan as a writer to watch out for. His last two scripts have been perfectly methodical, like a chemist's precise formula, almost perfectly calibrated. He has an ear for dialogue, both ruminating (at one point, a cowpoke laments that the way the country's going, no wonder his kids don't want to raise cattle for a living) and snappy ("Only assh_les drink Mr. Pibb." "Drink up."). Aided by a plaintive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis?as if there could be any better pick?Sheridan's voice is powerful enough that it almost seems like Mackenzie hardly has to do any heavy lifting at all. And though he doesn't set up high-octane thrills like Denis Villeneuve did with Sicario, he instead presents a sober, soulful threnody to the dying myth of the American outlaw.
(On a final note, I agree with Tanner: only assh_les drink Mr. Pibb.)