Hell or High Water (2016)

  • Time: 102 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama
  • Director: David Mackenzie
  • Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Dale Dickey


A divorced dad and his ex-con brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s farm in West Texas.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5 )


    IN BRIEF: A very good but familiar crime film that boasts some great acting.

    GRADE: A-

    SYNOPSIS: In order to save the farm, two brother run afoul of the law

    JIM’S REVIEW: The anti-hero, a staple of the 70’s culture wars, is back with a vengance in David Mackenzie’s modern-day crime drama, Hell or High Water. Its tale, of two brothers who break the law in order to survive poverty and foreclosure, reeks of the anger and frustration facing the middle class families across America today.

    Tanner (Chris Pine), son of the recently deceased Mrs. Howard, cooks up an illegal scheme to fight the banks from taking the family’s land. (You see, there’s Texas gold in them hills). Bringing aboard Toby (Ben Foster) his hot-headed ex-con brother, the two siblings rob from the rich (the banks) and give to the poor (themselves). As these outlaws commit more and more robberies and start to acquire a real nest age to help pay off their mortgage and living expenses, the odds of diminishing returns becomes more and more evident. It’s 60 / 39 % against these modern day Bonnie and Clyde wannabes’ success rate, especially with a wise ole sage of a sheriff, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), and a “mixed breed” partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), tracking down this robbing band of brothers. (I excluded those powerful 1% fat cats into the equation.) After all, the family that steals together deals together…and deal they must with the consequences of breaking the law. One knows, amid the gunfire and violence, that the cost of living in the fast lane is past due.

    English director David Mackenzie effectively captures the desperation of America’s poor with his stark images of a Texas wasteland. Large billboards about mortgages and loans dot the dry rural landscapes, nicely filmed by Giles Nuttgens. Mr. Mackenzie’s film is a poetic mood piece with intricate plotting and a narrative structure that keeps one riveted to the characters and their actions. He also casts his film with actors that are perfectly suited to their roles from the wonderful lead actors already mentioned down to the smaller roles of waitresses and tellers. (Katy Mixon, Margaret Bowman, and Dale Dickey are standouts.)

    Taylor Sheridan has created fully drawn characters and his dialog is concise and insightful. Their conversations are totally natural and bring a gritty realism to the story. Yes, the plot is predictable, the set-up contrived, and the film is a tad too leisurely told from the outset. But the haunting images and true-to-life characters are heartfelt and linger long after the film ends thanks to a terrific script, taut direction, and some of the best acting one will see all year.

    The quartet of lead actors are wonderful. Jeff Bridges is custom-fitted for this role. His grisly worn-out Texas Ranger is no stranger to this actor’s repertoire, but he wisely downplays the outlandish nature of this country trooper and makes him human and believable. Both the character and the actor blend so effortlessly. His consummate acting prowess throughout the film is remarkable. Chris Pine, downplays his good looks and shows a troubled loner, out-of-touch with life but barely hanging on to his humanity. It is one of his best performances in an impressive list of film roles that the actor continues to add to his resume. Ben Foster excels as his deranged brother who loves the dark side as much as he loves his sensitive brother. He makes his character resonate with a flair for danger that attracts and repels simultaneously. As Marcus’ partner, Gil Birmingham brings a droll sense of humor and fondness to his sidekick role.

    The film builds to its tragic conclusion…what else could there be! Hell or High Water is an excellent crime film that makes the ordinary extraordinary. It is well worth a visit.

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  • Hell Or High Water is easily one of the best movies of the year but then it’s that time of year. It’s not a western or a shoot-‘em-up cowboy movie even though it uses a lot of the same tropes as they do but with a very modern reason for doing what the characters do.
    Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie have created believable characters throughout the film. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some characters who are over the top but they are still believable. There is one waitress at a steak restaurant who is the most outlandish character in the bunch and the whole scene is the comic relief you need before the serious ending. The waitress, however, is just as believable as all the characters because they react to her as if she were real. The story is set up clearly but with surprises and the direction keeps it all clear even as it goes in ways you might not expect. It drags a little in the middle but that happens for a reason and it doesn’t last that long.
    Ben Foster plays Tanner Howard, the older brother who has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. Chris Pine is Toby, the younger brother who is the good one. We learn so much about these characters by the way they react to the world around them. They are both involved in robbing banks but it’s obvious they have different reasons and different outlooks. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton the Texas Ranger who is after the brothers. This character sees the funny things in life and comments on them. He nudges his partner Alberto Parker, played by Gil Birmingham, who is patience personified, usually, but we see what Alberto really means to Marcus by the end of the film. I can’t say it enough, all the characters in this movie are believable and just right for the parts they play.
    I give Hell Or High Water 4 ½ escape cars out of 5. The director, especially, needs to be considered for awards.

  • The last song articulates the film’s “spirit of the outlaw.” In this modern-age western the entire West Texas world is a bunch of outlaws: the banks whose usurious system would sweep the oil-rich ranch out from under the dead woman’s grandsons, the diners who don’t recognize the robbers, the trigger-happy customers who turn a heist into a slaughter, the waitress who resents losing the robber’s $200 tip that she needs to keep a roof over her daughter’s mortgaged head.
    And so to the central quartet. Two brothers face off against two lawmen. Toby is the good son determined to improve the lot of his two abandoned sons and ex-wife by robbing the Texas Midland branches to get the money to pay off the Texas Midland reverse mortgage and back taxes. He recruits his wilder ex-con brother Tanner.
    The brothers’ bond bristles with insults, parallelling that between Sheriff Marcus and his Indian/Mexican deputy Alberto. Exulting in political incorrectness, Marcus teases Alberto about his ethnic background. In return Alberto razzes his senior about his looming retirement. In blind poetic justice, the wilder outlaw and the tamer lawman are both killed.
    Though Toby and Marcus survive their success stays shadowed. In their last scene both appear dramatically cleaned-up, healthier versions of their earlier presentation. Marcus made it through a gun-happy society’s law system to make retirement. Toby has ensured his sons’ fortunes by passing on the oil-rich farm.
    But neither man knows peace. As Marcus senses (or as a moral man needs to believe), Toby is haunted by his brother’s death and the deaths of the bank-folk incidental to their robberies. He remains an outsider in his own family, coldly dismissed by his wife, kept at a proper distance by his more promising sons. Marcus remains trapped by the incompletely solved case. How can he prove Toby was the second robber? How did Toby plan it all and get away with it? And why? The depths of Marcus’s grief and anger are suggested when he tells Toby of the large family Alberto left behind.
    In the last scene Marcus gratefully accepts Toby’s invitation to continue their conversation at his home in town. There they may find “peace.” We’re not told what that “peace” means for each of them, if either will get it, and how.
    Perhaps Toby’s “peace” would be avenging Tanner’s death and dispatching the ex-sheriff’s implicit threat to his scheme — or making the final sacrifice for his sons and going down in gunfire. Perhaps Marcus’s “peace” would be solving that last case and bringing the robber to justice — or in his last shoot-out heroically escaping the torpor of retirement. It’s a Mexican standoff.
    In the last shot Marcus drives off, disappearing into the countryside as the camera drops to wheat level. That movement implies burial, as if an augur of the final shoot-out that even a modern-day Western sets us up to expect. But that reading is inflected by the reflection of a triangle of light on the left side of the screen. The light changes that burial to resurrection. Perhaps the two heroes’ “peace” will therefore rather be putting the antagonistic past behind them and getting on with their lives.
    That would make this a new age Western, which prefers a negotiated compromise over another shoot-out. That gives the men a sensitive, more female side, coherent with their later cleaned-up, more civilized look. That would also balance the tough flatness of the film’s women, all consigned to the margin: Toby’s hardened wife, the fleshy single-mom waitress who’s drawn to him, his casino pickup, the waitress who for forty years has been serving up only t-bone steaks, the only option being peas or corn. Toby’s courtly abstemiousness contrasts to Tanner’s prostitute performing on the bed behind him.
    The title comes from the lawyer’s instruction: Come hell or high water the heroes have to get the cash to the bank to avoid the foreclosure. The absence of high water is evident in the arid Texas landscape and the tired bodies that move bent and broken and hopeless through it. Only an Eastern city slicker would order a trout in these parts.
    As for the hell, it’s in the people, helpless before the banks, hopeless in their cycle of generations of poverty, with only the rare opportunity to make the one score that may be too late for them but just might spring free their kids. This circle of hell might well be the Trump supporters, on the fringe of the economy and the law, so hopeless they’ll bet it all on an irrational, even lunatic long-shot.

  • “Only as*holes drink Mr. Pibb”. So states the trouper of Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), an ex-con who just got out of the joint. He’s a trigger- happy wild man in 2016’s Hell or High Water (my latest review).

    Quote: “The ex-presidents rip off banks to finance their Endless Summer. Whoa!” Oops, wrong movie, wrong quote. “High Water” is about two brothers from Texas. They instead rob a series of banks that are trying to foreclose on their family ranch. You see their mom died leaving said ranch in debt due to a reverse mortgage. Time for these boys to saddle up, switch cars from village to village, steal regular amounts from the teller drawers, and pay everything off secretively.

    Hell or High Water is familiar stuff. Heck, if you’ve seen Public Enemies, Bandits, Point Break, or even 1986’s Wisdom, you know what you’re getting into. Oh well. Director David Mackenzie (Spread, Starred Up) does an admirable job to boot. He creates a world in which “High Water” feels like the type of flick the Coen brothers would have made years ago. It’s bullets and blood undercut with a little darkness, a little tongue in cheek humor, and shades of a modern-day Western. It has big name stars and another star in the canvasing cinematography by Giles Nuttgens. His camera-work showcasing the Great Plains, gives you the viewer something to stew over. The “Big Empty” becomes the “big zesty”. The Lone Star State dons its ski masks, its cowboy hats, its desolate abodes, and its sizzling sirloins. Ha!

    Anyway, the two actors playing the Howard brothers are Chris Pine (Toby Howard) and Ben Foster (Tanner as mentioned earlier). The Texas Ranger in hot pursuit of them, is played by the veritable Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton). They all immerse themselves in these roles to the point where you forget that it’s actually the same guys. “High Water” plays out like a cat and mouse game between everybody with almost no interaction via the gun-toting robbers and their prognostic, old timer cop. Foster and Bridges could easily play these characters in their sleep. Pine however, really comes into his own just like he did in January’s The Finest Hours.

    In conclusion, Hell or High Water is a nifty little genre piece, a film that feels almost too perfect for its own good. Its score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is at times haunting and the ending is a non-violent standoff with overly preachy dialogue. Also, the opening shot by Mackenzie is panned to perfection and the shootout scenes are loud and panting. With “High Water’s” late August release and commonplace approach, I unfortunately have to give it a fifty/fifty chance at Academy Award consideration. “High Water” as a flick doesn’t feel dated but it also doesn’t quite meets its “Waterloo” either. Again it’s a little too familiar but entertaining in a blithe sort of way. Rating: 3 stars.

    Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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  • The West Texan town in which the blazingly good film Hell or High Water is set seems a stereotypically sleepy town. Look closer and its bareness reflects the state of its scarce population. Signs like “Closing Down” and “Debt Relief” litter the streets. “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us” is graffitied on one side of a building. This is a town where people have lost jobs, where they’ve been swindled out of the real values of their homes and property, where poverty is destined to be passed down from generation to generation.

    So it only seems both surprising and justified when two men stage an early morning robbery in a branch of the Texas Midland Bank. It’s daring and not a little panicked, especially considering the was-it-worth-it haul of small-denomination bills. Yet there’s a method to the madness of the two men, soon revealed to be brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). As Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) susses out to his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), these here boys have been hitting a series of small banks, all mysteriously branches of the same bank, in order to hit a accumulate a specific sum of money. The fact that the robbers have only taken unmarked bills from the register makes it hardly worthwhile for the bank to press any charges, especially since there aren’t any surveillance cameras to help identify the thieves.

    Of course, Marcus is right – Toby, the soft-spoken mastermind of the robberies, is on a mission to steal enough money in order to pay off the debt on his ranch in order to hold on to the property, which has been discovered to have oil on it, and ensure that his two boys won’t have to grow up poor and in need of money like he and his brother did. The delicious irony is that the bank is being paid back with their own money.

    As thrilling as it is to watch Toby and the hotheaded Tanner pull off their heists, there’s an unshakeable sense that in securing the future of the next generation, they are also sealing their own fates. “I never met nobody that got away with anything,” Tanner tells Toby and, with Marcus and Alberto tracking them down, it’s all but certain that blood will be shed.

    One of the great things about Hell or High Water is the ease with which it balances its numerous elements – crime caper, neo-noir, modern Western, socioeconomic commentary, family drama, dark satire. This is a film that could have gone awry in a blink of an eye if the commentary had been too heavy-handed or if the brothers’ motivations had been less complicated, but actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) are so tuned into the rhythms of the material that Hell or High Water becomes a brutally poetic elegy that recalls the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men as well as Michael Mann’s Heat.

    Inevitability and duality are recurrent motifs in the film. Though possessed of contrasting temperaments, Tanner and Alberto share a clear-eyed acceptance of their fates based on a cynical but realistic understanding of how the world works for people like them. Both Toby and Marcus, on the other hand, want to alter their courses for their own well-beings. Toby is doing it for his children whilst Marcus, who is on the verge of retirement, doesn’t want to let go of his job. “I don’t know how you’re going to survive without someone to outsmart,” Alberto notes at one point in the film. Most of all, despite the friction between the two pairs of men – it was Toby who had to care for their ailing mother while Tanner was in jail; Marcus’ relentless teasing of Alberto’s Indian and Mexican heritage – it’s ultimately evident that there’s a significant amount of affection between the duos.

    All contributions are top-notch, from Giles Nuttgens’ eloquent compositions to the twangy but somber scoring by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to the nuanced performances from Pine, Foster, Bridges, and Birmingham.

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