ReelBob: ‘Hell or High Water’
By Bob Bloom
Small towns clinging to survival and little ranches fending off bankers who covet the land dot the rural, uninviting Texas landscape of “Hell or High Water.”
The film is a contemporary Western heist-thriller about two brothers who rob small banks to raise money to save their late mother’s ranch from foreclosure. Predatory lenders tricked her into signing a reverse-mortgage agreement.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are complete opposites. Toby is sober, deliberate and cautious. He is the one who devised the plan to rob small-town branches of the bank that holds the reverse mortgage.
He and Tanner take only the loose bills from the tellers’ drawers, then launder the money by crossing into Oklahoma and gambling at Indian casinos.
Tanner is wilder and more impulsive than his younger brother. He is a loose cannon, a human volcano that can erupt unpredictably at any moment.
He is an ex-con who is helping his brother for the thrill of the robbery. He is profane and vicious. Toby expends a lot of energy working to keep him in check and focused on their ultimate goal, which is to steal enough money to pay off the mortgage.
Their robberies soon come to the attention of the Texas Rangers. Handling the investigation is a veteran ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), and his younger partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
From the outset, you know that “Hell or High Water” is on an exorable trajectory that will lead to a violent, fatal confrontation.
Director David Mackenzie creates an atmosphere of inevitability that you cannot escape. You watch helplessly as Toby and Tanner continue their crime spree, while Marcus and Alberto patiently wait for them to make a mistake.
The atmosphere of “Hell or High Water” is one of desperation, as well as anger.
In Toby’s mind, he and Tanner are robbing the bank branches in order to right what he sees as an injustice — the duping of his mother into signing the usurious reverse mortgage.
Mackenzie subtly reinforces that notion by showing billboards hawking loans and mortgages that are supposed to help people in financial straits, but really take advantage of their dire situations.
Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan create an environment in which self-reliance, family and loyalty are keys.
They also add some political commentary by showing how the state’s open-carry law endangers civilians with cowboy attitudes, as well as those trying to uphold the law.
The performances are superb, with Foster and Bridges standing out.
Foster is like a coiled rattlesnake. You never know if he will strike or just pass you by.
Bridges’ Marcus seems to be a combination of his Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit,” wedded to Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell’s veteran lawman from “No Country for Old Men.”
Marcus’ folksiness masks a sharp and intuitive investigator who slowly determines what the brothers are doing.
His give-and-take jibes with Alberto are affectionately racist — the young man is part Comanche — and conceals a genuine affection for his cohort, who returns the barbs as good as he gets.
Complementing the movie is fine cinematography and a musical score that helps advance the feature.
“Hell or High Water” has a satisfying, old Western feel to it. The tense finale adds an interesting flourish that leaves you wanting more.
The film is one of the best of the year, a riveting drama with depth and a modicum of socioeconomic anger.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
4 stars out of 4
(R), graphic violence, language, sexual content