Movie Review: ‘HELL OR HIGH WATER’ robs summer’s entertainment at the cinema

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

HELL OR HIGH WATER | 102 min | R
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris PineBen FosterJeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham

Watching David Mackenzie’s new film HELL OR HIGH WATER, it is easy to see that the title is of no mere consequence. Researching the phrase leads to it being most associated with cattle drives, where they would drive their abundance and get the job done no matter what. Hell or high water were just the apex of conditions on their journey, with “hell” representing dry desertous land and “high water” meaning rivers that have risen due to rain. This example is of course a juxtaposition, leading two opposite ends of the spectrum but representing the same adversity.

This cattle drive example is a solid way to think about Toby Howard (Chris Pine), who is trying to drive his plan to fruition, saving his dead mother’s ranch from being taken by the bank, but is having adverse conditions in the form of Tanner (Ben Foster), his hot-headed brother. While Tanner is obviously dangerous and could get him killed, it is clear that Toby has no other way.

The Howard brothers rob banks, but in a Robin Hood kind of way. While their motives are pure, trying to raise enough money to pay off the tax lien, you can tell that they will do whatever it takes in order to achieve this goal; they are indeed at hell or high water, with Toby trying to keep everything driving forward to reach the end, amidst Tanner’s constant attempts to derail everything.
Meanwhile, another hurdle for Toby appears in the form Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger looking for one final good case to close out his long career. Complete with gruff Southern dialect, he is very calculating in his search for the brothers. The plot then shifts gears as the clock ticks: Will Toby save that land for his family, or fail, ultimately thwarted by these two men?

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the Howard brothers in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Photo courtesy of CBS Films.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the Howard brothers in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Photo courtesy of CBS Films.

Everything about HELL OR HIGH WATER falls into place, with every shift in mood or emotion warranted. Sure, the Howard brothers are criminals, but a lot of the time they just act like brothers doing normal brother things. These brotherly moments in between the criminality provide a lot of laughs, as well as the brotherhood between Hamilton and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who constantly rib each other over various discrepancies. They all have personalities with robber/cop representing a job they have to do, and the building of these characters gives everything within the action more depth, more investment from the audience.

Working from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who is no stranger to tension building in the desert having written SICARIO), Mackenzie uses subtlety in his camera, making sure that it doesn’t distract from the story. For example, the opening shot is a 360° pan as Toby and Tanner make their way to their first holdup. Using this method establishes two things: 1) It creates tension because the audience sees them as well as the intended victim, and 2) it sets the tone as the camera shows a poor town that surrounds the bank.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play a pair of Texas Rangers. Photo courtesy of CBS Films.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play a pair of Texas Rangers. Photo courtesy of CBS Films.

The West Texas setting plays a massive role itself, as the story makes several allusions toward Oil & Gas’s ramifications on the area, and how banks play a role as middle man to acquire land rights to drill. The feeling of helplessness that inhabits the region is what sparks Toby’s desire to rob banks in the first place, and his plan utilizes this “middle man” strategy by exploiting their weaknesses as a revenge for exploiting folks like him. This helplessness is further elicited from the desert surroundings, as well as the haunting soundtrack by long-time collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (THE PROPOSITION, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD). All of these elements play into the audience rooting for the Howard boys to pull one over on the establishment, beat the system that beat them.

What makes this film so great is that it takes the time to keep the characters in their personalities, building and building until the precise moment that reality catches up to them. All of them live a fantasy of sheriffs vs. outlaws as the dream-like haziness of their surroundings keep them within that element, shattered by the gunfire that brings the gravitas of their predicament to life. Chris Pine is quiet and focused in one of his best roles, and Jeff Bridges settles into his element like putting on your favorite boots. But the real star here is Ben Foster, who does devil-may-care so well that the audience can’t help but fall for Tanner’s charm. The intensity always stays within his look, and that uncertainty of his demeanor enhances the tension leading to each mistake.

Whether you think of it as a Western or a neo-Western, HELL OR HIGH WATER is still a superb entry to the genre, letting every aspect of film play a part in its story. It’s also one of the best films of the year.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is playing in select cities starting this weekend.
Dallas: Angelika Dallas

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.

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