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William Holden in Picnic

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Review: Hell or High Water

by Eric Blume

With their new film, director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) make one thing abundantly clear: they really, really hate banks.  Hell or High Water is a sort of southwest answer to The Big Short, a tale of rural Texas poor on a Robin Hood mission. 

Sheridan’s script was the winner of the 2012 Black List prize for best unproduced screenplay, a fact which feels surprising during the cliché friendly first half hour.  Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard are characters we’ve seen many times before, with a sibling dynamic that’s not new either.  Tanner (Ben Foster) is the wild bro released from prison, complete with a violent streak and true-blue redneck energy.  Toby (Chris Pine) is the tender brother, a taciturn and emotionally bruised man trying to make things right.  Together, they start robbing small Texas banks to secure money to save the family farm.  As Counterpoint we have two Texas rangers on their case:  Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), for whom this is the last big one before retirement(!), and partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the sage Native American sidekick. 

For about the first thirty minutes, you sit in fear that this is all the film will be, a simple chase to the inevitable populated with stock characters. The only hope it has is to somehow deepen.  Fortunately, it does...

Sheridan attempts an examination of our socio-economic state, with some complexity about the price of rising from poverty and the psychology that comes with its cycle.  Despite the initial level of cliché, and some unsubtle visuals (I counted at least three roadside billboards about money-loaning and debt), the script allows for more moral ambiguity as it develops.  Sheridan also has a good ear for how Texans speak, particularly to each other, and manages to grant several inarticulate characters sharp arcs.  The dialogue between the brothers feels true, and between Marcus and Alberto, he captures the way people of different races, who respect and work closely with each other, joke together.

Mackenzie's direction also finds inspiration.  He knows how to compose a shot, and his images have architecture and occasional lyricism.  He’s particularly strong at placing his actors in the natural open expanses of land in ways that deepen the texture of the film.  Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capture a burnished-sun look that feels rightly melancholy, and they both keep the camera moving; the movie feels alive.

Chris Pine, while the MVP of the Into the Woods, has never given this complete a performance.  He brings a measured pain and increasing sense of dread to his role, and he doesn’t make the mistake of downplaying his gorgeous camera face - his handsomeness feels both natural and worn in a way that works powerfully for the character.  We’ve seen Ben Foster do riffs on this good old boy role in the past, though.  Initially Jeff Bridges feels locked into one of those gumballs-in-the-mouth star turns he’s been leaning into heavily recently, but he delivers in the final reel; his final scene with Pine lingers wonderfully.

Hell or High Water isn’t a gamer-changer or even essential viewing, but it contains a lot of talent and intelligence. Its pleasures are many and rare is the movie that gets better and better as it goes along.


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Reader Comments (8)

Chris Pine won't get enough credit for his performance in this movie, especially cuz Foster is the more showy role as the hothead brother. I think his best gift are his eyes. He has these beautiful blue eyes, staring out under a physique that's been visibly worn down by grief and death. The script quickly sketches out the characters, and you get a lot of their history from the brothers' body language, what they say or don't say, the pauses that sit between their interjections. You can feel the yearning he wants for another life when he stares at the waitress or the woman who comes to him in the casino. The fear and anxiety he has robbing banks, those emphatic eyes looking out from his ski mask. For the movie to work you have to emphasize with criminals who end up doing some very bad things, its hard not to lookin at Chris Pine.

August 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

Thank you, Eric, great review.

I'm really looking forward to this, especially for Pine's performance. He has blown me away a couple of times, now - not only in Into the Woods - and I expect great things from him.

I also suspect that AMPAS will ignore him until he is in his forties, no matter how worthy he is. That face plus blockbuster backgrund - that can't go unpunished, can it?

August 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGena

Great film. Foster was actually my favorite, but the whole cast was excellent.

August 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

FYC Best Cameo/Limited Performance:

Katy Mixon as the diner waitress. She has two wonderful scenes. The first, she delightfully flirts with Chris Pine and the second, she's a powerhouse against Jeff Bridges. She is the one performance that stuck with me in a group of heavy hitters.

August 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I want to see this for Chris Pine

August 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

LOL where did all this Pine love come from? I'm glad he's getting it though; always thought his fine work in the Star Trek revamp is underappreciated/dismissed. Speaking of underappreciated, does any actor define that word better than Foster. A tremendous proven actor who one day be considered one of the very best IMO; all it will take is the right role in the right film.

August 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

@ Anonny

I have much love for Chris Pine, but this review and the five comments here are about the extent of his love at TFE. Not really a groundswell.

August 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Having finally seen this tonight (and enjoyed it very much), I will freely admit it significantly raised my opinion of Chris Pine's acting chops. Always thought he was fine, competent, but never really challenged in anything I'd seen him in before. This was a great role for him. Though Chris Evans is still ahead of him in my hierarchy of Chrises.

And Ben Foster is really fun to watch in this, even if he's done variations on this role before. He's one of those actors who seems perpetually underrated despite getting steady work and being generally respected by people who follow movies closely - I always think of him as a white Jeffrey Wright.

Jeff Bridges is an old pro at this. Even when he seems to be coasting, he knows what he's doing. Great dynamic with Gil Birmingham's Alberto, who was also very good. Sharp performances all around.

August 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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