Hell or High Water (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Hell or High Water,” written by Taylor Sheridan, offers a plot involving two brothers who decide to rob banks in rural areas of Texas but it should not be mistaken for a standard action picture that has nothing on its mind other than a final battle between men of crime and men of law. Credit to the writer for creating a thoughtful and intelligent story about men driven by a purpose and in their journey finding themselves fueled by desperation.
The story’s template is all too familiar and so we believe we know exactly where it is heading. But most refreshing about the film is its ability to surprise consistently, whether it be in terms of plot direction, the beautiful interior details of its characters, or the symbolisms between the land and the men living in it. And although the picture consistently moves forward with a sense of purpose, notice it is willing to slow down at times so we can pay attention a little closer to the plain faces of men and women in these small towns. Here is a picture about poverty in forgotten places of America, where the poor remain poor for generations and the banks keep their eyes on the profit at the cost of human dignity.
The performances are precise and worth looking into. Ben Foster and Chris Pine play the brothers, Tanner and Toby, respectively, with such electrifying intensity that scenes where they remain quiet usually command a high level of tension. Quite opposite in temperament and personality, we cannot help but wonder which is the more dangerous: Tanner the more dominant and explosive of the duo or Toby the more intelligent and patient of the pair. Early on we realize how and why the brothers’ partnership works—and, equally important, why it is a formidable force, a fascinating challenge, for a nearly retired Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges).
Bridges brings his expected strong presence—a trait that many viewers take for granted. Bridges has numerous amusing lines, especially when interacting with his American-Indian partner (Gil Birmingham), but also appreciate instances when he doesn’t say a word and his eyes communicate paragraphs in just a few seconds. Bridges is such an experienced performer that he is able to communicate something entirely different by simply changing the way his character breathes or gives out a look a few degrees to the left. Right from the very first scene where we meet his character, we know that the ranger is highly intelligent, curious, and one who has captured a lot of criminals in his time. This makes him either a wonderful protagonist or antagonist—depending on which party the viewer ends up rooting for.
Aside from eye-catching shots of the land and the horizon, here is another beautiful detail the film offers: there is no standard hero or villain despite an ordinary plot involving cops and robbers. Since the material takes on enough detours in order to get us to understand what makes its characters tick, either way we become convinced soon enough that the material, directed by David Mackenzie, will offer no expected dramatic ending. There is only life and the continuation of that life with positive or negative consequences based on what had transpired.