Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review: Hell Or High Water

Image courtesy of CBS Films.
Part crime-western and part social drama set against the backdrop of an economically depressed American community that has been drained by financial institutions, "Hell or High Water" is an impressive thriller that could be described as a "regional picture" in much the same way that, say, "Winter's Bone" could be given that title - both movies aim for authenticity in capturing the communities in which they are set.

Occasionally, the film strains a little in this quest for authenticity - with several bit parts almost veering into self parody or an overkill of folksiness - but, mostly, this is a gritty, tense and well-acted drama about characters living on the edge of society.

In the picture, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers - Toby and Tanner, respectively - who stage robberies early in the morning at various branches of the same bank chain. There's a reason for this and I don't want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that the brothers' plan involves getting payback against the bank for having made their family suffer and to secure money for a purpose that's noble, despite its being obtained through violent means.

On their tail is the great Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton, an ornery old ranger who is partnered with a Native American man whom he constantly torments, although there's a certain amount of affection in it, which we realize later in the picture. Hamilton thinks he has the brothers figured out in terms of where they'll strike next, even if he can't quite piece together why they are pulling the heists.

Director David Mackenzie, who is responsible for the superlative prison movie "Starred Up," does a great job of capturing the small West Texas towns where the action is set. The streets are filled with stores that have gone out of business, old diners where a few faithful sit mostly in silence, run-down gas stations, boarded up homes and, naturally, more than a few banks.

Pine's Toby is the brother with a plan and, of the two, the more normal, whereas Foster's Tanner is a violent man who has recently been released from prison and is assisting Toby in his plan simply because his brother asked him to do so. The robberies are particularly effective because, with the exception of one, they mostly take place early in the mornings and involve very few people - as opposed to the elaborately staged robberies to which we've become accustomed in the movies. During one particularly humorous one, they run up against an old codger who practices Texas's open carry laws and, during a later robbery, the consequences are more grave.

As I'd mentioned before, the filmmakers occasionally lay it on a little thick with the folksiness - one scene in which a grouchy old waitress attempts to take Bridges and his partner's order is at once funny and over-the-top - although this is often made right by the fact that Bridges' character, who is himself a stereotype of an aging Texas lawman, engages in an ongoing commentary on virtually everything and this keeps us engaged. It also helps that the character is inhabited by Bridges, a wonderful actor no matter the role.

"Hell or High Water" is, on the whole, a gripping crime drama that often plays like a western. There's a great showdown between two characters in the end that results not in bloodshed but some tough talk that could be seen as humorous or tragic, depending on where it eventually leads. The film flirts with prescient thematic material - economically depressed working class America and the financial institutions that have left them so - and even if it doesn't quite say anything we haven't already heard, it makes for compelling material. This is a solid little thriller that could be a summer sleeper.

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