Film Review: “Hell or High Water”

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges
Directed By: David Mackenzie
Rated: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
CBS Films

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Out of curiosity I researched the phrase, “Come hell or high water” since the movie title clearly borrows from that popular saying. My research yielded the fact that it’s an early 20th century saying that relates to the difficulties of cattle ranching. And here I had always assumed it was more of a Biblical saying or something cool Americans would say when facing adversity. That’s not to say that the originators of the saying weren’t God-fearing ranchers.

Brothers Tanner (Foster) and Toby (Pine) aren’t ranchers and certainly don’t appear to be fearful of any afterlife repercussions of their sins. Although the would-be cowboys are working on their future beer guts and sport rough stubble that could certainly mislead one to believe they’ve had to wrangle livestock. They live in western Texas where there’s clearly a hangover from the 2007 market crash. Residents dotting the drought ridden landscape seem more focused on staying true to the beliefs they grew up on, rather than adapt or evolve.

Toby isn’t old fashioned, but he definitely seems lost on what to do in this brave new world. He’s desperately trying to save the family farm and is looking for a life preserver as he swims in debt. His ex-con brother, Tanner, helps him with the first of many bad ideas, robbing banks. They’re not stupid about it at least. They commit robberies at banks in small towns with smaller police officers nearby, they’re only asking for unmarked bills smaller than $100 so the money can’t be traced, and they’re literally burying their getaway vehicles.

On their trail are, outside of the normal law enforcement, are two Texas Rangers, Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Their comradery stems from a passion for what they do and years of working together. Marcus is near retirement and has a shoot from the hip viewpoint of everything, even making racist remarks about Alberto’s racial mix. But Marcus isn’t just some out-of-touch old timer; his racist jokes and jabs come from a deep appreciation and bond with Alberto. Alberto gets that too, making sure to quip back at Marcus. Alberto understands that under Marcus’ rough Texas exterior is an elderly man appreciating the friends he has as he dreads the purposelessness that’ll come with his retirement.

The movie follows these two groups journey and most of the time it’s exciting, funny, and heart felt. But behind the upbeat veil is one of hopelessness and deadly uncertainty. Any story about a two bank robbers, armed to teeth, being chased by the Texas Rangers won’t have a happy ending. For every laugh, our characters seem to wonder and ponder the consequences of their actions and the sins that will haunt us to our death day.

“Hell or High Water” captures the rustic West, the deep-seeded “Don’t Mess with Texas” attitude of its characters and the unflinching misery of living in impoverished small town America. It flips between jovial Western and teeth gritting thriller flawlessly. It’s a smart script with rich meaning that offers its characters realistic dialogue. They’re simple folk delivering simple lines, and anything near Shakespeare writing would feel horrendously out of place. Instead we get plain Midwestern men delivering speeches worthy of a Johnny Cash song.

The dialogue is further bolstered by the cast. We get to see a side of Pine we’ve never seen before, and one we’ll hopefully see more of, as well as a side of Bridges that we’ve come to love. Foster also gets the chance to make up for summer misstep, “Warcraft”, giving one of his best performances as the conflicted Tanner. If the summer movie season is truly over and it’s now time to turn the page to award season, “Hell or High Water” is a wonderful primer and a sign of good things to come.