Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hell or High Water

2016's HELL OR HIGH WATER might read on the page as a standard cops and robbers drama, albeit with a conscience.  And well, it plays like one, too.  All of the elements are there.  Someone even yells "No one was supposed to get killed!" late in the movie.  That one is right out of the Great Cliche Handbook.  But director David Mackenzie's film does the old chestnut proud, with no nonsense, taut direction and a faithfulness to Taylor Sheridan's script that elucidates its poignancy.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers who don ski masks and hit several branches of Texas Midland Bank in the type of backwater towns in which very little happens.  Most of the banks don't even have security cameras. This is unfathomable to about to be retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) - "Doesn't Wal Mart carry electronics?"  Along with his American Indian partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), with whom he forever engages in good natured bickering,  Marcus finally gets out of his chair and does some detective work, tracing the boys across the state at a confident, steady clip, usually correct in his assumptions.

Marcus learns that the brothers' mother recently passed, leaving behind a ranch (on which there is oil) that is about to be confiscated by Texas Midland.  Toby has two estranged sons from a broken marriage.  Cash from the robberies is converted to chips during periodic visits to a casino on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma.  The chips are then converted again, into a check made out to the bank.  Toby wants to provide for and make good with his sons, telling one of them "not to end up like us".  Tanner is a loose cannon who served jail time and killed their abusive father.  His participation is out of sheer love for his brother, and likely for the thrill of the chase.

HELL OR HIGH WATER, recently announced as a nominee for Best Picture, is edited perfectly by Jake Roberts to tell its oft told tale.  The pace is just right.  There are rough action scenes alternating with low key dialogue scenes, and not a word is wasted.   This is not a slang choked time waster.  The four men all are given ample time to talk about themselves, and their behavior tells even more.  The performances are uniformly fine, with of course special mention to Bridges, who perfectly interprets an old cuss who's seen it all, maybe not quite ready to hang up his rifle, and smart as a whip.  His lines are often quite funny, matching others - like an ancient waitress who asks what the lawmen "don't want to order" (a great scene).    The evocation of West Texas life feels genuine.  With this setting and plotline, you might call the movie a contemporary Western.

Sheridan's screenplay also very nicely weaves in contemporary topics like reverse mortgages and right-to-carry (firearms) laws, the latter most memorably when gun toting townsfolk are more than happy to chase the bank robbers after a heist that turns nasty.  My favorite bit - another waitress refuses to give back her very generous tip (provided by Toby) to Marcus, who cites it as evidence.

"That's half my mortgage!"

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