Friday, August 26, 2016

Hell or High Water

HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie, 2016)

The Howard brothers turn to a life of crime to save their deceased mother’s West Texas ranch in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) has already done hard time for stealing, so he has no compunction about holding up branches of the bank they owe in order to raise the capital to retain ownership of family property. Toby (Chris Pine) is less enamored of the idea of using illegal means to provide for the well-being of his two sons living with his ex-wife, but if this is the only option available to him, then at least he can concoct a plan that will hopefully keep them or anyone else from getting hurt.

Tanner and Toby try to strike early when fewer people are around and stick to stealing loose, low denomination bills in the cashiers’ drawers so that the money is untraceable. Their thefts aren’t big enough to attract the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leaving the pursuit of these bank robbers to Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is close to a retirement he’s less than eager to settle into, so he welcomes the opportunity to mix it up in the field perhaps one last time.

HELL OR HIGH WATER alternates scenes between duos on opposite sides of law with the expectation that at some point their paths will cross. Dividing the time about evenly gives space for empathizing with the circumstances that have brought Tanner and Toby to this point and to admire the ingenuity of and poetic revenge in the thieves’ methods. What they’re doing is wrong, yet it doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted either. The split focus also permits the lawmen to take on some added gravity. Rooting interests may favor the righteous brothers, but Marcus and Alberto come across as principled upkeepers of the code.

While the recession and its aftermath weigh on characters grieving for what has been or will be lost, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote SICARIO, manages to carve out ample room for humor. Foster has a grand time savoring the bond Tanner forms through crime with his less enthusiastic sibling. HIs character would probably commit these acts for kicks, so being able to carry them out in the name of self-justified justice and familial preservation is the icing on the cake. Bridges’ gruffness is never not a source of amusement. He busts the chops of his partner in a way that is easier for men in a tough job to express affection. Marcus baits Alberto with cracks on his heritage and may get under his partner’s skin on occasion, but mostly they give the sense of mutually respecting co-workers who have to tease one another to share the closeness they feel.

HELL OR HIGH WATER takes delight in the color found in declining small towns dotting the landscape. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the scene in which an elderly, no guff-taking waitress asks for the Rangers’ diner orders by barking “What don’t you want?” at them. Coming from her it’s an accusation more than a question. 88-year-old actress Margaret Bowman makes a meal of her handful of lines by pinning them to their seats with enough sharp attitude to castrate a bull in a single flick. In a film that examines the motivating force of taking what one feels is deserved, such behavior could not be encapsulated more effectively.

Grade: A-

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