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.