MOVIE REVIEW: Hell or High Water



If I was trying to create a snazzy pull quote to add to the "Hell or High Water" lobby poster (one that is already filled with oversold promises), it would be "redneck edge."  Fashioned as a genre-advancing Modern Western from the same screenwriter that knocked us out with "Sicario" last year, director David Mackenzie's new film is inspired in ambition but lax in execution.  Its edge is the inability to decide whether to bark or bite. 

Debuting in the second tier Un Certain Regard section of this summer's Cannes Film Festival, "Hell or High Water" strides on the premise of two downtrodden brothers who turn to robbing banks in an attempt to climb out of poverty and secure their family's future.  Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father of two boys trying to make ends meet and chase late child support.  He was the favored son of his recently deceased mother and seeks to stave off foreclosure of his family's land, his only calculable piece of wealth.  Toby enlists the help of his ex-con and more disliked brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) to target the small West Texas community branches of Texas Midlands Bank, the lien holders of the upcoming foreclosure. 

The film opens after the genesis of that background to show us the brothers' first two bank hold-ups.  As somewhat bumbling amateurs, the two are lucky to find easy marks lacking updated security systems.  Since their small bills-only scores fly smaller than the FBI's radar of attention, the case falls on the desk of aging U.S. Marshal Marcus Hamilton, played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges.  Hamilton is an old coot Texas Ranger a week out from mandatory retirement.  He and his beleaguered half-breed deputy partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham of the "Twilight" series), hit the trail to chase leads.  Meanwhile, the Howard brothers ditch cars between jobs, launder their money through casino cashiers, reflect on their risks, and gear up for more robberies to reach their goal in time.  In the words of the Electric Light Orchestra, they don't know it, but they're heading for a showdown. 

Let's talk about the bark and the bite.  Where this film can succeed is with its talk.  Any and all characters (especially Hamilton) operate with a vernacular of bigoted insults and loud announcements of righteous toughness dished out like "bless your heart" pleasantries.  Crass with comebacks, holstered with hot lead ready to fire, and lifted by puffed chests of warped pride, no one is going to stand being the wuss of this movie.  They kiss their mothers with those mouths because their mothers wore the same acidic sugar on their lips.  Minorities need not apply.  

Frankly, that's pure Texas.  This story ain't taking place in f--king Delaware.  The authenticity of redneck personalities is a devilish blast to watch and react to, ranging from whistled answers of hat-tipping respect to cringe-inducing "yup, people still say that" laughs.  Celebrated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan developed multi-layered characters in the dirt and dust for these primary actors to inhabit.  The leads and immediate supporting presences are given more than black hat/white hat assignments.  Chris Pine shines the brightest, shedding much of his blockbuster glamour to wear that handlebar mustache with amibiguous ethical intensity.  

In an equal measure of both praise and critique, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges plow valleys of gray area and nuance, which is greatly appreciated, but we've seen these exact routines from them before in better roles and better films.  Ben Foster seems to always plays the hot head with a hardware store's worth of loose screws and room for one good speech or two.  His act was better in a half-dozen other films ("3:10 to Yuma," "Alpha Dog," and more).  Blathering every line with a thick and messy drawl, all Jeff Bridges is doing, and I hate to say it, is calling upon a retread of his Rooster Cogburn take from "True Grit" set instead in the present.  Neither Foster or Bridges are enigmatic or different as would-be game changers, no matter the nuance. 

That brings us to the bite, or lack there of.  Filmed on location throughout the hot bed of rural New Mexico, "Hell or High Water" has the proper seared palette and podunk landscape to fit the needed aesthetic edge for a modern western.  Unfortunately, cult band faves Nick Cave and Warren Ellis cannot manufacture a hint of audio suspense to match, paling in comparison to something like Johann Johansson's subtly frightening score from "Sicario."  A boost in such tone could have gone a long way. 

The film occupies a land strewn with empty longnecks of Shiner Bock and Lone Star that each promise a potent story of conviction and remorse.  A strong attempt is made by Mackenzie and Sheridan to present a motivating and underlying social commentary on generational poverty,  That pertinent stance does not elevate higher than footnotes of passing sermonizing.  Billed and sold as a crime thriller/drama, we spend more time sitting on porches, lawn chairs, and stools during magic hour sunrises and sunsets drinking those regrets away than we do attacking the problem and punching out an allegory.  It's hard to have both the the brazen ball-busting and soul-baring soliloquies in the same film without issues. 

You wade and wait through too much talk for too little bite.  Minimal tension, even the sipping, slow-boiling kind that tastes stronger, exists to raises pulse rates until the climactic (and luckily redeeming) third act.  In this weak summer year, "Hell or High Water" stands above the pretenders and has worthy pedigree, but you can do better.  If you're looking for a desperate man turned to bank robbing or the suspense of people on the run in Texas, go revisit "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Midnight Special" respectively.  Those are more apt potential future masterpieces. 

LESSON #1: WEST TEXAS MIGHT AS WELL BE ANOTHER COUNTRY-- I love your stereotypes that aren't really stereotypes, Texas.  Your detached rural lifestyle populated by tough talkers and conceal carry hard-asses of whiskey courage that go to church on Sundays will always be a special cross-section of America that speak another language that still sounds like English. 

LESSON #2: BROTHERS GO AS BROTHERS GO-- Toby and Tanner have led different lives with different tastes and tolerances.  Where they do align is when it comes to helping family and backing your brother's play.  It's like a triggered instinct neither questions or denies.  Some of the same can be said for brothers of the law between Marcus and Alberto as well.

LESSON #3: FINANCIAL HARDSHIP FORCING PEOPLE TO CRIME-- This lesson is simple, classic, and common in genres even beyond westerns.  The need or greed of money can force folks to extreme actions.  The oppressor here in "Hell or High Water" are the big business banks of the unseen 1%-ers that profit from the misfortune of lesser incomes and social classes.  A rallying call is attempted.