'Hell or High Water'
A simplicity in ‘Hell or High Water’ serves as the film’s greatest strength. That’s not to say the movie is without ambition. In fact, its greatest flaw is subtext overt enough to be text. The reason the film works comes down to the simple pleasures of good actors exchanging strong dialogue.
Yeah, there are guns and robberies and cops chasing said robbers. That’s all here and even exciting. But the best stuff comes when director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan take a break from all that and slow things down to let some talented actors tease out deceptively complex characters through tersely meaningful chatter. As far as Coen brothers knockoff movies go, this is one of the best.
Things kick off with a rather glorious tracking shot/title sequence through a bank parking lot in a deserted dirtbag Texas town as two nogoodniks pull up in hoodies and ski masks to rob the joint. They keep it simple, taking only loose cash and then disappearing before anyone has time to process what happened. Then they rob another bank. We learn that the robbers are brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). Tanner is the rougher sibling, just released from jail for killing their father. But Toby planned their bank raids for reasons that will become clear later on. Chasing the bank-robbing bros is Jeff Bridges in that particularly grizzled mode he’s focused on since ‘True Grit’. He plays a soon-to-retire sheriff (is there any other kind?) who has a playfully mocking relationship with his successor (Gil Birmingham). He’s energized by the case and enjoying the chase, a little worried about how he’ll fill the hours without bad guys to outwit. Of course, this is one of those movies where there are no obvious white hat and black hat cowboys. It all plays in shades of gray.
Actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (‘Sicario’) is clearly playing in Coen country by way of Cormac McCarthy. The movie is defined by genre, yet playfully stretches the boundaries of those constraints through a mix of eccentric characterization and woeful regret. Sheridan’s vision of Texas is one of oddly poetic yokels, both wise and cartoonish. Director David Mackenzie (a Scottish jack-of-all-trades who has made everything from the pained erotica of ‘Young Adam’ to the bitter prison drama ‘Starred Up’ and even the Ashton Kutcher sex comedy ‘Spread’) shoots his scenes just slightly larger than life. All shots are beauty shots with vistas that extend to the horizon. All towns are gothically derelict, populated by extras with distinctively gnarled faces. The film is gorgeously stylized enough to heighten the drama with goofball character comedy asides to ground the realism. The action is harsh and direct, often milking out sweaty suspense, but you won’t pine for bullets and bloodshed (apologies for the punnery) to carry the drama. The character beats are far too entertaining.
Despite some excellent work from day players, extras presumably pulled from the streets, and some scene stealing from Katy Mixon (‘Eastbound and Down’), the movie ultimately belongs to four actors. Pine and Foster carry the lion’s share of the drama. Foster’s bouncing ball of reckless energy and cockeyed charm is compulsively watchable, while Pine does just fine as his stoic opposite (even he’s just a little too movie-star handsome for the backwater role, despite facial hair). Their story slides from comedic to tragic, with both actors admirably carrying the weight and bringing the levity. Foster is likely a bit stronger, but being possibly the best actor in your generation will do that.
The heart of the movie belongs to Bridges and Birmingham’s battered cops. Bridges essentially does his ‘True Grit’ performance in a contemporary setting, as a very Cormac McCarthy-esque cowboy lost out of time. He’s both goofy and heartbreaking, always compulsively watchable. Birmingham keeps quiet along the sidelines, letting Bridges dominate their scenes as both as a generous actor and as the result playing a more contemplative character. He’s so quiet he barely seems present at first, but gradually builds a lovable character between the silences.
Watching those four actors spar with each other using some pretty juicy and funny regional dialogue is the main joy of ‘Hell or High Water’. The fact that’s it’s such a technically accomplished thriller mostly serves as icing. The film is darkly comedic and viscerally entertaining. As pure genre filmmaking, it works wonderfully with a tight narrative that keeps its mysteries tantalizingly out of frame until absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, when the motives behind this hillbilly crime spree are revealed, the social commentary is laid on a bit thick. Sheridan had a very specific point he wanted to make and hammers it home with a bit too much gusto. It’s a distracting irritant in an otherwise expertly crafted and mature thriller. Thankfully, it’s far from a movie killer. ‘Hell or High Water’ is a delightfully off-kilter, violent and comedic crime tale to keep us all satisfied until the Coens finally decide to do this again. Nothing wrong with that.