Hell or High Water

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 12, 2016

Ben Foster and Chris Pine star in 'Hell or High Water'
Ben Foster and Chris Pine star in 'Hell or High Water'  

"Seems foolish," says a West Texan old timer in "Hell or High Water," a 21st Century Western starring Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, "the days of robbin' banks and tryin' to live to spend the money." But that's exactly what a couple of desperate brothers with high-minded populist notions plan to pull off in this slow-burning (somewhat overwritten) heist.

Technology being what it is, the great bank hold-up (that classic scenario of America's truest genre, the Western) seems a thing of the past. Anyone stupid enough to throw on a mask and point a gun at a teller is digging his own grave. And the Howard brothers know this as they force a worn-down bank employee to her knees.

They also know that if they don't aim too high, and if they only take the small bills, they can't be traced. And the new digital surveillance cameras in the small branches of the Texas Midlands Bank are useless, because they're hooked up to outdated analogue recorders.

One after another, Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) knock over the provincial depositories. And as cavalier as they may be with their handguns and their hard demands, these good old boys are still polite enough to tip their cashiers and return the concealed weapons to the patrons who own them.

Toby is the brains of the brotherhood. He's had a wild past, isn't the best father and he owes a hell of a lot in child support, but he has no trouble with the law. The only time he's ever appeared in court was at his divorce. And he isn't selfish either. The sickness of his poverty has taken a toll on his fortune, but he'd rather help his family than make it rich.

Tanner, on the other hand, is a volatile and charismatic ex-con. Like his brother, he has a savior complex, but it's tempered with a bit of the Devil. He realizes that every salvation requires a sacrifice, and he's willing to go there for his "Little Brother" -- but on the way he plans on doing some fighting and whoring and raising Cain.

The home these boys have known there whole life is the Staked Plain, just South of the Texas Panhandle and smack down in the middle of Comanche territory. (Or at least this was Comancheria before 1860, after which barons of industry like C. W. Post, the cereal manufacturer, colonized it into "utopian communities." In other words, mostly white.) Now the citizens of this place are dirt poor and dried up. Still, the land is rich, (though you can't see it on the Main Streets). Droning pumpjacks drain the Comanche Earth faster than the arid sun evaporates the irrigated waters.

The families who inhabit this place don't see a bit of the oil money. Their land has been swept out from underneath them by the Texas Midlands Bank. So these folks may shake their fingers at the Howard boys' hooligan behavior, but they also support what they're doing, taking a little back from the institution that has taken from them.

Director David Mackenzie (who started out making films in the UK and is known for the mature way he deals with "mature" subject matter, like sex, in films such as "Asylum" and "Young Adam") uses real people rather than Hollywood actors in his background and bit parts. These weather-worn faces and prickly personalities contribute as much to the art direction of this film as the dilapidated crucifixes, dirt roads and ramshackle buildings.

Jeff Bridges plays drawling and mushy-mouthed Marcus Hamilton, a police detective at the cusp of retirement charged with rounding up the bank robbers. In many ways he is Tanner's nemesis and doppelganger. Hamilton feels himself to be an older brother, of sorts, to his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), poking and prodding the man with racist humor in a way that he feels will bring them closer.

The themes of brotherhood and male bonding are some of the most powerful in Taylor Sheridan's decidedly smart script. The American West is a world of machismo and men's ties run deep, while these same men have an almost innate misanthropy that can only work its way out through guns and blood loss.

Sheridan (a TV actor who made a name for himself with last year's "Sicario") favors the actor to the action, the character to the car chase. His pacing builds with a brooding foreshadowing that never lets you know for certain if Robin Hood will win or lose in the end. Sheridan shoots himself in the foot, however, when he lets his dialogue grows too precious and too preachy. The working title of this film was "Comancheria," and Sheridan could learn a thing from those Lords of the Plain: Strength comes through silence.

At times, Mackenzie and his longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, over write their images as well. The rusty clank of a wind pump and the burned out headlight of a Ford Bronco are far more evocative than a rattlesnake perfectly placed within the frame. That is "cute" rather than necessary to the story.

Indeed, some of the most powerful filmmaking was completely improvised. Like the time where, in natural lighting, Toby and Tanner playfully wrestle against the dried-up fields and dusky Western sunset.



Sheriff Marcus Hamilton :: Jeff Bridges
Toby :: Chris Pine
Tanner :: Ben Foster
Alberto Parker :: Gil Birmingham
Debbie :: Marin Ireland
Jenny Ann :: Katy Mixon
Elsie :: Dale Dickey
Billy Rayburn :: Kevin Rankin


Director :: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter :: Taylor Sheridan
Producer :: Sidney Kimmel
Producer :: Peter Berg
Producer :: Carla Hacken
Producer :: Julie Yorn
Executive Producer :: Gigi Pritzker
Executive Producer :: Bill Lischak
Executive Producer :: Michael Nathanson
Executive Producer :: Rachel Shane
Executive Producer :: John Penotti
Executive Producer :: Bruce Toll
Cinematographer :: Giles Nuttgens
Film Editor :: Jake Roberts
Original Music :: Nick Cave
Original Music :: Warren Ellis
Production Design :: Tom Duffield
Costume Designer :: Malgosia Turzanska
Casting :: Richard Hicks