‘Hell or High Water’ delivers well-developed characters in an intense crime drama
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HELL OR HIGHWATER
Where is it playing?: Downtown Centre
What's it rated?: R
What's it worth?: $ Full price
What's it worth?: $ Full price
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Perfect Sense, Hallam Foe) directs Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) crime drama about brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), the former an ex-con and the latter a divorced dad, who turn to robbing branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their West Texas family farm in an effort to save it. Jeff Bridges stars as soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who with his half-Comanche partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), go in hot pursuit. (102 min.)
Glen: Ambiguous morality is on full display here, and the lines between right and wrong couldn’t be murkier. About the only “character” that is clearly “bad” is the Texas Midland Bank, which convinced the Howard brothers’ ailing mother to reverse mortgage the family farm, paid her back property taxes to put her further in debt to them, and plans to foreclose on the property, upon which oil was discovered, essentially cheating the Howards out of their property and oil revenues worth $50,000 a month. Ex-con Tanner is clearly the worse of the two brothers, but he’s also fiercely loyal, funny, and brave. He’s almost admirable. Toby has never been in trouble with the law and loves his kids, but he’s an absentee father, willing to rob banks, and isn’t above beating a man senseless. They two are classic antiheroes. Meanwhile, Ranger Hamilton mercilessly hands out racist taunts to his mixed-race partner, the half-Comanche half-Mexican devout Christian Ranger Parker. They’re the good guys, but I couldn’t help rooting for the Hamilton brothers, whose cause was worthy but not their course of action. If you liked No Country for Old Men, you’ll like this too. It’s a modern day existentialist Western.
Anna: The idea of paying back the big, bad bank with their own stolen money is a satisfying “stick it to the man” plotline, and the cat and mouse game between the Rangers and the robbers keeps the action rolling. While the loose cannon brother Tanner is invigorated and inspired by each opportunity to take down a bank branch, Toby is obviously conflicted with the less-than-honest way of coming up with cash. Yet he realizes the only way for his sons to escape poverty is to hold onto their oil-rich land. He talks about being poor as a disease that passes from one generation to the next, and we see that truth throughout the depressed and dying small towns that hold the bank branches that the Howard brothers are targeting. It also takes place in West Texas, where residents seem to have their own idea of justice, and guns poke out of waistbands everywhere you go. While Toby’s intent was to see no one hurt, eventually bad circumstances and Tanner’s live-wire personality lead to much more than a simple case of armed robbery. The window to pay off the ranch—and not just survive but escape the Rangers’ pursuit—becomes almost impossibly narrow.
Glen: Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautifully films Texas’s wide-open spaces, but his camera frequently lingers over shuttered businesses, derelict vehicles, and predatory billboard advertisements for loans and check cashing joints. Through the supporting characters—the bank tellers, waitresses, and townspeople—Texas itself becomes a character. On the one hand, it’s about resiliency, where everyone’s packing a gun and believes in vigilante justice. The towns are broke and broken, but the people who live there are proud though conflicted. Even though the banks have made their lives harder and preyed on the Texans, their sense of injustice leads them to take potshots at the brothers. During their second robbery, an old man (Buck Taylor, who played Newly in Gunsmoke) shoots as they leave. At another point, about five pickup trucks of gun-toting townspeople follow the brothers as they make their getaway. If they knew the impetus behind the brothers’ actions, these same people would probably be applauding them. The complicated morality of the story, the well-developed characters, and the unpredictability of the plot combine to make this one of the best films of the summer.
Anna: The characters are artfully nuanced, as are the relationships between them. Texas does indeed feel like its own character, one that has been beaten and broken but refuses to stand down. The old man who shoots at the Howard brothers is in the bank exchanging coins he found buried in his basement, hoping for something rare that can bring in some cash to pay the mortgage. When Ranger Hamilton tells waitress Jenny Ann (Katy Mixon) he needs to inspect the money that Toby left her as an overly generous tip, her hackles raise as she basically tells him he’ll have to rip it out of her cold, dead hands because she’s got a mortgage to pay. Overall, the bank is the only character that is truly unlikable; the rest seem to be just trying to get by, or in the case of the Rangers, just trying to do their jobs. Blending some unexpected and charming humor with these interesting and subtly complicated character studies, Hell or High Water proves to be a wholly intense and interesting film, not an over-the-top wannabe Western by any standard. It achieves a great balance between art-house film and suspense-filled crime drama, rich with both characters and storyline that keep you engaged right to the end.
Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at email@example.com.