“Hell or High Water”: A Review

Posted: 01/31/2017 in Uncategorized

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I will open by saying that while I am a true film fan, I am not one who gravitates toward Oscar nominated films. In my youth, I went through a period where I attempted to watch as many “classic” or “quality” critically acclaimed films as possible. I quickly learned that acclaim is an arbitrary thing. Many of the films I watched I pretty much forced myself to sit through and resolved to not do so afterward. As a rule “Oscar worthy” films might meet with many criteria or metrics but if they do not fall within my field of interest, I will more often than not give them a pass. I like escapism. Life is hard enough with all that surrounds us in our day to days. We are inundated with negative reality, poverty, famine and many horrors too disturbing to mention that when I sit down to engage or relax my mind, I want something that elevates and entertains versus bringing harsh truths to me, of which I am largely well aware.

I mention these things as I recently watched the Oscar nominated film “Hell or High Water” and found it amazingly good. It is essentially a crime film, positing the threat of destitution via bank foreclosures and hard economic climes as motivation for criminal activities. This is not normally the kind of film I would enjoy or recommend but in this review, I intend to do both.

The plot centers, for the most part, around four men, two brothers and two Texas rangers. The interplay of both pairs alone is entertaining enough as all four men are interesting characters. The intersection of their paths via a very rough trajectory transforms this film into something more. The brothers rob two banks, Texas Midlands branches, in the beginning. The younger of the two is organized and purposeful. The older is a wild card, an ex con with a thirst for chaos. In and of itself this sounds like nothing new. The performances of both actors, however, transform this potential trope into a well fleshed out character piece.

Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father. Tanner (Ben Foster) is an ex-con helping out his brother for an as yet unrevealed purpose. Both get one another which leads to a convivial teasing that permeates the movie. When Tanner commits a secondary robbery on his own, nearly getting both men caught, Toby grimly states “how have you stayed out of jail for a year?” to which the ex-con replies straight-facedly, “It’s been difficult”.

A moment at the family farm informs who both men are as well as reinforces the bond between the brothers. A well acted moment occurs when Toby asks his brother why he agreed to help him on this journey and he tells him plainly, “because you asked.” Both brothers come from a brutal background and yet are very tender and protective of one another. Two scenes push this notion forth. One occurs in a casino; and the other at a gas station.  The scene in which Tanner menaces/bullies a prostitute for trying to seduce Toby out of his newly gained money is unpleasant to watch. Toby’s demonstrating his own penchant for violence when a thuggish young man draws a gun on Tanner reveals that both are far more similar than originally perceived. Toby’s acknowledgement that one of his sons ‘reminds him’ of Tanner is meant to be a cautionary statement with even Tanner proclaiming that hopefully he won’t turn out ‘that way’.

The connection between Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is equally complicated. Marcus plans miserably for his retirement and the two verbally spare continuously. Marcus escalates the humor, taking a racially taunting tact against his partner. The men know each other well and the acknowledgement that Alberto has no issue with the older man’s caustic ways presents him as suffering straight man. Both unquestionably respect one another. After a particularly mean run about Parker’s native heritage, the younger lawman remarks to Marcus that he is half Mexican. The older ranger glibly retorts, “I have not yet run through my course of Indian insults”. Marcus then pauses and tells him when he is dead that the thing he will remember most fondly about him will be his teasing. Alberto inquires if his death will occur tomorrow. The banter  between the rangers mirrors that of the brothers and until the end segment, this film had comedic gems aplenty, including the lawmen going to a steakhouse and getting arguably the most crotchety waitress in the universe earning Marcus’ quip, “we know they won’t be robbing this place…” Belying the ornery nature of the older man, there is a keen intelligence. He earlier mentions he may yet have one hunt left in him and is first to intuit both the goal of the robberies as well as the potential targets.

Were it not for a fantastic end sequence in which Tanner makes a hard stand against locals giving chase, culminating with a mountain top shoot out, this film could very well have been a heist comedy. Reality inevitably intrudes and the story plays out to a costly conclusion. A later moment between lawman and robber earns the following pronouncement as explanation of justification, “I’ve been poor all my life, like a disease passing from generation to generation…” The stark terrain and gentle enabling by wait staff and patrons alike earlier reinforce this mindset. A heist film evolves into an indictment of capitalistic greed and bank bottom lines. The performances elevate it into something more, an engaging trip well worth the taking. “Hell or High Water” is simply outstanding and well worth your time.

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