By: Blake Edgington: Movie Critic
Film: Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Review: 4 bags
After a whole summer worth of “action” blockbusters with countless back to back scenes of destruction and mayhem wrapped in CGI, Hell or High Water takes a calculated and methodical approach to storytelling.
Within the title of the film itself there is an indelible image of an old western storyline with barren landscapes and tumbleweeds blowing past the screen. It screams of the desperation and poverty commonly associated with the cowboy way of life in the west and their resolve to keep the little that they own. The difference is that this western motif doesn’t have horses or gun holsters or spurs or even cowboy hats. There’s no big shot business mogul trying to take over a town or a shootout at high noon between two men in the middle of the street either. In this modern day western, we find the greed of the banks assuming the role of antagonists as they methodically drive out landowners who can’t meet their demands.
Hell or High Water is a story about the collision of the Old and New West, two brother— Toby (Chris Pine), a straight-living, divorced father trying to make a better life for his son; and Tanner (Ben Foster), a short-tempered ex-con with a loose trigger finger— come together to rob branch after branch of the bank that is foreclosing on their family land. The hold-ups are part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that powerful forces beyond their control have stolen from under their feet. Vengeance seems to be theirs until they find themselves in the crosshairs of a relentless, foul-mouthed Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last triumph on the eve of his retirement. As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their plan, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the last honest law man and a pair of brothers with nothing to live for except family collide.
Director David Mackenzie is in no rush to tell the story. Mackenzie wisely avoids the expected Hollywood pitfall and instead delivers extended takes with creative tracking shots designed to enhance the story at its own pace which, for this film, was a brilliant move. Highlighting the love between two brothers and their determination to keep the land they own, the story opens with a simple bank robbery. The brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) aren’t experienced in the ways of thievery just yet, but nonetheless they pull it off without anyone getting hurt. Toby is adamant about non-violence. Tanner, however, is another story. Although their motivations are a bit clouded the audience is invited to understand these rookie criminals and maybe even root for them. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario, allows for the characters to develop personalities and backstories in an organic way which helps the audience invest emotionally.
The strength of this film is in the acting. Chris Pine takes full advantage of this opportunity to break from the “Captain Kirk” mold. Ben Foster portrays the loose cannon Tanner with ease and intensity. Jeff Bridges’ laid-back attitude is reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, which lands right in his wheelhouse. And Gil Birmingham plays the sidekick lawman from a small town as if he’s actually lived it.
Picturesque, well-paced and rich in dialogue, the film is unmistakeably Coen brothers and just might be the best drama of the summer. These days, movies like Hell or High Water are, unfortunately, few and far between – where the characters tell the story and not the special effects. There’s really nothing new in terms of “story”, but sometimes it’s the way a story is told that makes all the difference.