Film Review: Hell or High Water (dir by David Mackenzie)


The Texas-set film Hell or High Water features four excellent lead performances.  There’s Chris Pine and Ben Foster, playing brothers and robbing banks.  And then there’s Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, as the two Texas Rangers who are attempting to hunt the brothers down.

But for me, my favorite character was the waitress who, during the latter half of the film, serves lunch to the two Texas Rangers.  When Bridges asks her how she’s doing, she replies, “Hot and not in the good way.”  When the two Rangers start to order their food, she stops them and tells them that everyone who comes in the diner orders the same thing except for one “asshole from New York” who tried to order a trout.  “We ain’t got no goddamn trout!”  It’s a short scene but it’s one of my favorites because, if you’ve ever spent any time in West Texas, you know that this scene is probably the most realistic in the entire film.

My second favorite character was a banker teller played by the great Dale Dickey.  When the Rangers ask her if the men who robbed her bank were black, she replies, “Their skin or their souls?”  You just have to hear the way that she delivers it.  In theory, that should be an awkward line but Dale Dickey makes it sound totally natural.

In fact, everything about Hell or High Water seems totally natural.  For a film about bank robbers, it’s actually a deceptively low-key film, one that is as memorable for its quiet moments as its shoot outs.  When the violence does come, it’s all the more jarring because the movie has spent so much time focusing on the tranquil stillness of the West Texas landscape.

(That said, I should point out that the film was actually shot in New Mexico.  But, quite frankly, New Mexico is pretty much just West Texas with more Democrats.)

Hell or High Water is a film that’s all about the little details.  The film opens with a bank robbery and, as the camera gracefully circles the bank, we catch a glimpse of graffiti announcing that the artist did 4 tours in Iraq and that “bailouts (are) for banks, not for me.”  At its heart, Hell or High Water is about the many people who have been left out of this so-called “economic recovery,” in which we’re all supposed to have such faith despite having seen little evidence of its existence.  While the rich get richer, the struggle of the people in Hell or High Water is ignored by everyone but them. And so, the people do what they can to survive.  For some, that means robbing banks.  For others — like a wonderfully snarky group of witnesses in a diner — that means refusing to admit that they saw anything happen.  If you want to see a realistic portrait of economic uncertainty and populist revoltuon, don’t waste your time with the cutesy bullshit and bourgeois Marxism of The Big Short.  Watch Hell or High Water.

Of course, not everyone is willing to turn a blind eye to the bank robbing brothers.  Hell or High Water is not just about economic anxiety.  It’s also about the unique struggle of being a bank robber in a part of the country where literally everyone has a gun.  (During one robbery, Pine asks an old customer if he has a gun on him.  “Damn right I got a gun on me!” the old man snaps back.)  As opposed to so many other films, Hell or High Water gets West Texas right.

(It’s probably not a coincidence that we’re told the brothers robbed a bank in Archer City, the home of legendary Texas writer, Larry McMurtry.)

As for the film’s cast, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster get the two “showiest” roles.  Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger who is only a few days away from retirement and who enjoys needling his partner.  (One of the main delights of the film is the comedic interaction between Bridges and Gil Birmingham.)  Ben Foster is the more reckless of the two brothers, an ex-con who declares that everyone is his enemy but, at the same time, shows himself to be willing to do anything to protect his brother.  Both Bridges and Foster give excellent performances and Foster, in particular, reminds us that he’s one of the most exciting actors working today.

And yet, for me, the true anchor of the film is Chris Pine.  Chris Pine, of course, is best known for starring in the last three Star Trek films.  And while he was always an adequate lead in those films and he gave a wonderfully self-aware performance in Into The Woods, none of his past films prepared me for just how good a job he does in Hell or High Water.  Pine gives a quiet and rather subtle performance and, when we first see him, we automatically assume that he’s been dragged into the criminal life by his more flamboyant brother.  But as the film progresses, we start to realize that there’s more to both the character and to Chris Pine as an actor.  By the end of the film, we’re forced to reconsider everything that we previously assumed about everyone.

Speaking of end of the film — let’s just say that Hell or High Water has one of the best final scenes of 2016.  Like the film itself, it’s deceptively low-key but it leaves you reeling.

It took me a while to see Hell or High Water but I’m glad I did.  Come Hell or high water, you should see it too.

52 responses to “Film Review: Hell or High Water (dir by David Mackenzie)

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