Friday, December 2, 2016

Hell Or High Water [film review]

Released theatrically on August 19th; now available on all physical and digital media platforms 

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard set off on a crime spree to rob from the crooked financial institution that foreclosed on the family ranch. On their tail are a grizzled U.S. Marshall and his partner trying to outsmart and apprehend the duo.

That’s the essence of the plot for Hell Or High Water, which was written by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. The bare bones narrative, combined with the rather nondescript imagery provided by the flat West Texas setting, could have pushed Hell Or High Water into “snoozer” territory, were it not elevated by the movie’s great acting performances.

The two main actors are Chris Pine as Toby and Ben Foster as Tanner. The characters are a study in contrasts, with Toby a straight-arrow divorced father of two hoping to secure a better future for his kids. Tanner is a loose cannon ex-con with little to live for other than finding his next adrenaline rush via whatever lawbreaking method he can. Such an opportunity presents itself when Toby hatches a scheme for the brothers to rob several of the banks owned by Texas Midland, who carried out the foreclosure on their late mother’s property. Toby then plans to use the stolen money to pay the bank back the debt owed on the ranch, which is more valuable for the oil reserves recently discovered on it than for sentimental reasons (the Tanners are one seriously dysfunctional family).

Pine, who’s never made much of an impact on me as an actor, delivers an impressive, understated performance that anchors the movie. Foster, one of the better actors of his generation, brings the simmering rage quality he’s now expertly honed to his role as the older brother. Jeff Bridges also doesn’t disappoint as crusty U.S. Marshall Marcus Hamilton. It’s the kind of world-weary role that Bridges could do in his sleep and his character is even saddled with a trite “impending retirement” narrative. Bridges still manages to make the most of his screen time in this supporting role, however, winning the viewer over with his character’s mix of smarts, humour, and offbeat charm. He pulls this off in spite of the consistent racist ribbing of his partner Alberto (played by an excellent Gil Birmingham), who’s a mixture of Mexican and Comanche.

The film doesn’t get too preachy in its political message of how big financial institutions routinely screw over the little guy. The director, whether intentional or not, also highlights the absurdity of Texas’ open carry gun laws with a couple of hilarious moments that illustrate the added dangers of being a bank robber in the Lone Star State. Hell Or High Water may keep things simple and unfold at a leisurely pace, but the principal cast make it one of the better crime dramas I’ve seen in 2016.

Rating: B