Movie Review: ‘Hell or High Water’
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges
Plot: A Texas Ranger chases a couple of bank robbing brothers.
I honestly didn’t think much of this movie when I first saw the trailers. Just another in a long line of half-baked pieces of pulp fiction that make up for a lack of narrative depth with overwritten dialog intended to be clever, that just so happens to have tied down a few great actors to flog with its’ terribleness. At the time, I didn’t realize the script was written by Taylor Sheridan, scribe of drug cartel thriller, Sicario, nor did I realize it was directed by David Mackenzie, director of British prison drama, Starred Up. That is some fine pedigree when it comes to revitalizing hard-boiled potboilers as something much more compelling.
The first step is to embrace the pulp. Its’ sepia toned lighting and glued-together Texan towns remind us of by-gone westerns. The violence comes hard and fast with very thoughtful “under-the-top” logic, and 5 Southern parlance words are always used when 2 words would do fine, as if it was written by some redneck Shakespeare. It is all put together as if it was one of the comical ’90s crime capers that sprung up after Tarantino’s immediate rise to fame, but they are also subverting it. The above tropes are all used sparingly, and the contrast makes them more effective if they were just one of a hundred of the same moments. In that way, it is very similar to the movie, Drive.
It stars Chris Pine (constantly trying to shake off his protagonist handsomeness) and Ben Foster (who has found a niche playing assholes) as a couple of brothers robbing from the same bank that is trying to foreclose on their family farm, so as to pay the bank with its’ own money. Pine revels in the long quiet moments where the weight of his decisions lay heavy on his demeanor, while Foster is the ticking time bomb that keeps setting off the aforementioned tropes. They make for a good pair, rivaled only by the two Texas rangers on their trail.
The always awesome Jeff Bridges brings back his Rooster Cogburn slur as almost-retired Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton. His seeming inability to take anything seriously hides a combination of bored self-loathing and retirement regret, not unlike Tommy Lee Jones’ No Country for Old Men character, just with a relentless sense of humor instead of constant introspection. He is partnered up with Native American character actor, Gil Birmingham, who threatens to steal every scene that he is in. That’s no small feat when acting alongside The Dude.
The subversion continues when it comes to the possible romanticizing of these outlaws. On one hand, they are backed into a desperate corner by an easily-vilified organization that sees loans as a better opportunity to collect property rather than interest. However, in the wake of their stick-ups are common Texan townsfolk processing anger, fear, depression, and the occasional physical injury, the same type of person that may stereotypically root for these characters if they were members of the audience instead of the cast. It grants its final moments a Cormac McCarthyist “no good solution” take on morality.