Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Writers: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
A review by Ryan M. Holt
Summer blockbuster season is officially over. We are now firmly into Oscar season. And David Mackenzie starts the season off with guns blazing in this trip through the bonds of brotherhood through the lens of a modern western set in Texas.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine play Tanner and Toby Howard, two brothers striving to buy off their deceased mothers land before foreclosure. Tanner had an estranged relationship with his family after a stint in prison, leaving Toby to enlist his services to hit up banks across western Texas. The plan itself is actually ingenious, with the Howard Brothers traveling north to Oklahoma on the night of each heist to exchange the stolen bills for casino chips. They spend a couple hours on the floor, gambling a little bit away, and then cashing out at the end of the night. After two banks are robbed in the same morning, Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, start to piece together exactly what the brothers are up to.
Despite following the Howards as the main characters, the outlaw and cowboy imagery is very obvious, with the Texas Rangers mostly clad in white, while the Howard’s are always shown in darker tones. Specific images and billboards are shown to show that most of the locals in these two light towns are in doldrums themselves, allowing the Howards to do as they please. The only thing shown in business post recession are the bank branches themselves, with diners and hardware stores interspersed throughout. While the Howards never go full Robin Hood and return the wealth they steal to the locals, the locals don’t go out of their way to stop them. These themes minor the real world, where a lot of people look the other way out of lethargy and exhaustion. Most of the banks robbed are staffed by two or three people, and hardly ever have patrons inside. The wealth has dried up and moved towards the cities in the real world, leaving smaller towns ripe for plucking when it comes to limited resources.
There are strong parallel’s drawn between the relationships of the Rangers and the Howards, with Chris Pine’s character only wanting to secure his mothers land, and Jeff Bridges wanting to retire with one last thrill ride on his resume. Ben Foster is incredibly unhinged and raw, play off the ‘stealing for a purpose’ performance of Pine and bringing Chaos and a sense of honor to the role. It is refreshing to see the roles of responsibility reversed among siblings. Tanner Howard is older than Toby, and Toby is the one who is constantly reigning in Tanner. This is very indicative of real brotherly relationships, as there is never one who is the absolute perfect golden child who can do no wrong. Brothers grow and learn from each other, regardless of age, and to see that reflected in media is great.
On the Ranger’s side of things, Hamilton feels that his knowledge on how to do things in the only way to catch these criminals. He demands that he and his partner, Alberto Parker, do things his way. Instead of Jeff Bridges falling into the trope of the wise old mentor trying to pass on his knowledge to his younger counterpart, he acts more like a traditional bullheaded brother would. This clever subversion pays off incredibly well throughout the film, with Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges jabbing at each other with quips back and forth. The bicker like siblings would.
The performances, specifically of Ben Foster and Chris Pine, have breath to them. Pine doesn’t smile and wink at the camera like he does in Star Trek. Ben Foster rarely broods in the corner and looks longingly into a mirror like he did in Warcraft. The two push themselves, and honestly make the film enjoyable from start to finish. I struggle to think what the film would look like if the leads didn’t have the palpable chemistry Foster and Pine bring to the roles. Having them act outside of their traditionally cast roles allows the characters to come to the forefront with ease, because what they are doing is so drastically different than what they typically do.
I will say the ending is brutal, but the pay off is worth it.
See it! The performances alone make the film worth it. The main actors push themselves in ways that aren’t seen in their other projects, the film has themes that can resonate with nearly anyone who has siblings, and it is good old fashioned fun. It is a great way to start off the 2016 Oscar season and it is definitely one worth seeing in theaters.