David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water tells the story of two bank robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster); the Howard boys. Robbing banks to pay of the loan on the family farm, they have planned it out for one week of robbing as many banks as they can, paying the mortgage off and retreating back to their free and clear farm. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are hot on their trail determined to bring the Howard boys to justice before Marcus retires. This is hardly a new premise I know, but Hell or High Water is a fresh and interesting character study of human behavior and why we do the things we do. This is not an action film, per say. There is action in it, but this is more about people than the criminal element of the story.
Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water has familiar elements but the subdued acting of Chris Pine, the gregarious performance of Ben Foster and the back and forth banter between Marcus and Alberto makes Hell or High Water something special. These are freshly drawn characters that seem very real and the story is a richly textured slice of Americana; Grapes of Wrath style. The Howard boys are from a dying middle Texas town. “Get out of debt” signs litter the landscape, as do shells of abandoned buildings. This is the skeletal remains of a town that has seen its best years come and go. The Howard boys have their own demons, too. Their father was an abusive drunk who finally met his end in a “hunting accident in his barn in the middle of April” if you get my drift. Hey, accidents happen. Tanner is only 38 years old and has already spent almost a third of his life behind bars. Toby is still scarred by the abuse, emotionally, but has managed to repress a lot of his rage. But it has taken a toll on him. His marriage has failed and both Toby and Tanner see their only way out.
Pine and Foster are terrific together. They behave like brothers would and their dialogue is fresh and believable. Bridges and Birmingham are splendid as well. They are two people from opposite worlds. Marcus is an old school codger; grumpy, unrefined but wise and good hearted. Alberto is a mixture of Mexican, Native American and a host of other nationalities that Marcus is always teasing him about. They snap back and forth with insults, but the writing and acting is so good that you know the admiration they have for each other is sincere. Director Mackenzie does a fine job of keeping Hell or High Water low key and he lets the film build to a climax which is satisfying. The whole story supposedly takes place in middle Texas, but in fact, was filmed entirely in New Mexico. Regardless, the cinematography is stunning with wide angle, expansive shots of desert. The color and scenery are gorgeous to behold as well as the wild west, country feel that this film has. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis as well as the country songs used for the film fit well and enhance the story nicely.
Hell or High Water took a few weeks to hit my local theater and it was another week before I made it to the theater to see it. I am glad I did. This is not a big production and its budget is a paltry twelve million dollars. But the filmmaker’s know what they are doing. They have made a special film with Hell or High Water; gritty, intelligent and engaging. It has come from out of nowhere and has already developed somewhat of a cult following. For Hell or High Water it is well deserved.
Hell or High Water – ****1/2 out of 5
Hell or High Water – Rated R for language. brief nudity, sexual situations, violence and gore
Hell or High Water – Run Time is 102 minutes
Hell or High Water is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for locations and times.