Wednesday 7 September 2016

Movie Review: Hell Or High Water (2016)

A rural heist drama with plenty of soul, Hell Or High Water is a superlative crime film, delving into the us-versus-them psyche where resentment justifies audacious lawlessness.

In rural west Texas, divorced dad Toby Howard (Chris Pine) seeks the help of his older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to go on a bank robbing spree. The brothers are about to lose their sprawling family property to the unscrupulous bankers, and Toby wants to quickly raise the cash to pay off the lien and allow his sons to inherit the property clear of debt. While Toby is low key and has led a quiet life, Tanner is more unstable, prone to violence, enjoys the thrill of crime and has just been released from prison.

The brothers try to hit the banks early in the morning to avoid customers and casualties, and aim to get away with a relatively small cash amount from each branch. Their exploits nevertheless attract he attention of gruff Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is nearing retirement but likes nothing more than tracking down bad guys. He sets about trying to predict what the robbers' next move will be, not an easy task in the wide open and sparsely populated terrain dotted with small towns.

Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, Hell Or High Water breathes deeply from its surroundings and creates a complex world where good and evil co-exist in many of the same people. The film is smart and nuanced, tense action sequences sitting comfortably next to rich character development scenes to create a tapestry of rural life where different rules apply.

The three key characters are conflicted and not easy to like, but Mackenzie patiently rounds Toby, Tanner and Marcus into real people with faults and dreams, pursuing their targets as best as they know how. The scenes between the brothers allow the criminals to emerge as men worth caring about, trying to push back against unfavourable economic and social forces.

Meanwhile, Marcus does not even try to hide his colours: he is a politically incorrect borderline racist, with his partner Alberto bearing the majority of Marcus' taunts. Toby and Tanner may have been left behind by the American dream, but Marcus never went looking for any modern version of society: he is happy to be retiring with his caustic attitude towards life fully intact.

The landscape is a big part of the film's ambiance. With New Mexico representing West Texas, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures a sun-drenched, sweaty environment simmering under impressively huge skies, forgotten by much of what counts as progress. Here small town main streets look pretty much the same as they did a hundred years prior, and working the land whether to feed cattle or extract oil is still the main occupation. Except that the wide open secondary highways are dotted with signs of an ever lingering recession, with advertisements for loan and bankruptcy services providing the most prominent smudges of colour.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are the heart of the film, and the two actors find the comfortable space where brothers naturally understand and support each other without necessarily sharing all the same values. Jeff Bridges casts a long shadow as the Texas Ranger who will only fade into the sunset once he solves his last case on his own terms.

Hell Or High Water stands tall on the prairies of rural despair where, with just some squinting, the rewards of crime shimmer as a viable tool to redress the economic balance of power.

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