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hell_or_high_water

D: David Mackenzie / 102m

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Kristin Berg, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin

Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine, Foster) are brothers who carry out bank robberies. They target branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, hitting two of them in the same morning. They are working to a plan of Toby’s devising, and they cover their tracks to the extent of burying the cars they use in the robberies, and taking the money across the state line into Oklahoma and laundering it at an Indian casino. Once the money has been laundered, they then get the casino to issue their “winnings” in the form of a cheque… which is made out to Texas Midlands Bank. Why? Because thanks to a reverse mortgage provided by the bank to the brothers’ recently deceased mother, their ranch will suffer foreclosure if the outstanding mortgage isn’t paid. And that’s without the oil that’s been found on their ranch as well…

The police investigation is headed up by Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his long-suffering partner, Alberto Parker (Birmingham). Hamilton is near to retirement, and his experience tells him that the bank robbers have a specific sum they’re aiming for; once they’ve got it they’ll stop – even though Tanner carries out an impromptu robbery on another bank. Realising that they’ve got a beef with Texas Midlands Bank, Hamilton persuades Parker to stake out one of the bank’s other branches, and they wait for the robbers to show up. With only one more robbery needed to net them the rest of the money they need, Toby and Tanner arrive at another branch altogether, only to find it’s been closed down. They decide to rob another branch in a bigger town, which also means a bigger risk.

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The robbery is not a complete success. The brothers get the money they need but find themselves pursued by gun-toting locals. They manage to split up, and soon Tanner finds himself followed by the police. As he heads into the nearby hills in an attempt to escape, Toby takes the money and tries to get across the border and return to the Indian casino. But first there’s the small matter of a police checkpoint…

A modern day Western set in West Texas (but shot mostly in Eastern New Mexico), Hell or High Water‘s sombre screenplay used to be known as Comancheria. Neither title really does justice to a story that revolves around money and the way in which its importance is felt keenly by those who don’t have it, or how casually it’s regarded by those that do have it. This part of West Texas is peppered with roadside signs offering both financial and religious solutions for dealing with personal debt, but none of these signs have been put there by the banks or the loan companies that are deemed responsible for so much of the debt and deprivation that the average West Texan endures as part of their daily life.

But Toby Howard isn’t going to accept the loss of his family’s ranch (or the oil found below it). He’s not going to become another victim of the financial institutions that plague the area with their fire-sale mentality and lack of humanity. Along with his brother, Tanner, he’s going to fight back, he’s going to make Texas Midlands Bank accountable to him. It’s a classic David vs Goliath tale, except that in this case, Goliath doesn’t even know he’s in a fight. Taylor Sheridan’s perceptive, yet harsh screenplay makes it clear who the villain of the piece is, and it’s not the brothers, even if Hamilton and Parker firmly believe they are. And it adds to the harshness of the story that Hamilton never stops viewing the Howards as villains, even when he begins to work out why they’re robbing banks in the first place. Where the viewer can have a large degree of sympathy for their plight and their solution, Hamilton has only one judgment to give: they’re criminals, pure and simple.

hell-or-high-water

Mackenzie keeps things this simple throughout, and does so against a backdrop of financial ruin and macho posturing that serves as a vindication for Tanner and Hamilton’s behaviour. Tanner’s a hothead, unpredictable and rash; you never know if he’s going to jeopardise Toby’s plan or see it through without incident. Foster has played this kind of role before, but here he injects a sense of melancholy that makes Tanner more tragic than perhaps he has a right to be. It makes his performance all the more impressive: Foster knows that Tanner is as close to a stereotype as this movie gets, but he ignores that and makes the character as intriguing and beguiling in an off-kilter way as he can.

Bridges is equally impressive, his brooding, jowly features looking out and around from behind his sunglasses, his massively non-PC comments about his partner’s racial background funny, but only in a “long-time married couple” sense. But Sheridan’s script doesn’t let Hamilton have it all his own way. When he says, proudly, “This is what they call white man’s intuition,” Alberto is quick to respond, and in a perfectly deadpan manner: “Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.” All humour aside, though, Bridges projects a stern, authoritarian personality for Hamilton; he’s a man caught at the end of a career that has seen so many changes it’s almost overwhelming, so much so that once his retirement arrives, he can’t rest or leave the past behind.

These two roles, and the complexity that both actors bring to them, threaten to leave Pine way behind in the acting stakes, but he’s more than a match as the mastermind behind it all, his downtrodden, put-upon character finally taking a chance on himself in a desperate time of need. Pine isn’t exactly the most intuitive of actors – you can see the wheels turning in most of his performances – but here he does something quite remarkable: he imparts a stillness to the role that makes Toby all the more worthy of our time and attention. Foster may have the flashier role, but it’s Pine who provides the moral and emotional compass for the movie to navigate by.

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All this is set against some stunning desert landscapes, perfectly lensed and lit by DoP Giles Nuttgens, and acting as unconcerned characters occasionally drafted into the story for effect. Those wide open expanses, with their unending vistas and rippling heat hazes speak of a far-off country where the promise of a better life is just over the horizon – if only the brothers could get there. But Toby’s plan is much more prosaic than that, and Mackenzie uses the character’s yearning for a better life for his children to highlight Toby’s innate nobility. Mackenzie and Nuttgens are aided by exceptional editing by Jake Roberts – the movie has an elegiac feel throughout that lends itself so well to the movie’s internal rhythm – and there’s a wonderfully melancholy, rueful score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that rewards the viewer on so many levels, Hell or High Water takes its financial vigilante characters down a hard road indeed, but makes the prize as compelling and profound as possible, and without dumbing down the narrative; the three leads are magnificent, and the whole mise-en-scene is handled with care and confidence by all concerned, leading to a movie that is by turns haunting, complex, thrilling, and emotionally draining.

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