Friday, August 19, 2016

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is more than it appears to be at first glance. The simple story of two brothers robbing banks while literally being pursued by a cowboy (Jeff Bridges) and an Indian (Gil Birmingham) through small Texas towns is grounded in complex motivations playing as much on character-driven drama as themes from westerns and heist films which screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie use to frame the tale. Shot against the bleak canvas of West Texas (or, to be more accurate, New Mexico standing in for West Texas), Hell or High Water is an engrossing, entertaining, and often amusing, film.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as Tanner and Toby Howard. The estranged brothers have been reunited after years by a recent tragedy and a driving need which will push them to robbery. As the film opens, the two perform a pair of well-planned, if shakily executed, robberies of two West Texas banks. Taking only small denominations from the cashiers' drawers, the two limit their exposure and the police's chances of tracing the money. Needing a large amount of cash by the end of the week for purposes which will eventually become clear, the pair are just getting started.

At first glance, each of the characters can be broken down into specific archetype. Toby is the smart one. He's obviously the brother with the plan and the responsibility. Tanner is the unstable one whose brashness will get the pair into trouble. Ranger Hamilton (Bridges) is the old coot working his last case while constantly shooting off politically incorrect wisecracks towards his partner. Watching the story unfold, however, it becomes obvious Sheridan isn't interested in leaving his characters as simple paper cliches. Instead, he delves into the motivations of each, finding pain, humor, and humanity in unexpected moments.

There are really two separate films here. Either the Howard brothers or the Rangers story would have made for a quality film on its own with the other receiving only lip service. Mackenzie blends the two stories together seamlessly, giving audience two stories for the price of one. Pine and (a rather rough-looking) Foster are terrific together. They wouldn't be my first choice to carry such a film, but they prove more than up to the task. Bridges is in grumpy old man mode for most of the movie, which Birmingham has to take the brunt of, but when the script forces him into moments of honesty with his partner the payoff is huge.

I would like to know more about Sheridan's earlier drafts. Only once, very late in the film, does the story ignore a chance to delve deeper into the hard truths the Howard brothers trap themselves in which would have led to an even bleaker final act than Mackenzie's film delivers. I didn't even see the possibility until nearly too late, but it would have been the final gut punch for a film which will live you staggering. Even if the script doesn't pounce on this lingering plot thread, the movie is terrific. A slow moving drama punctuated with violence, action, and well-timed humor, Hell or High Water is the first must-see movie of 2016.

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