7 Pieces of: “Hell or High Water”

hell or high water onesheet“Days of robbing banks…long gone for sure.”

Story: Toby’s desperate to save the family ranch after his mother’s passing.  So he taps brother Tanner to help him with things.  And by “help him with things”, I mean “rob banks to get money to play poker and score big”.  What could go wrong?  Oh, that Texas Ranger and his partner gunning for you?  Don’t pay ’em no mind.

Genre I’d put it in: Low key modern day cowboy epic.

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Original.

Gotta say: For a dark meditation on today’s economy, and the lengths we’d go to secure a future for those we love?  Hell or High Water is entertaining as hell.  And by entertaining, I mean that you couldn’t have torn my eyes off the screen for love or money.  The plot feels like a combination of top-notch play and train wreck; you know something absolutely horrible will happen any moment now, but the cast is so damn talented you can’t look away.

As for the details?  Set design is on freakin fleek here.  Right down to the beer the guys are swilling; Lone Star and Shiner. (Though everybody knows Shiner Black wins every time. #juststartedawar) Cinematography echoes that of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s Sicario, with a gritty clarity that doesn’t flinch from the run-down details of everyday life in this movie’s world.  And no, it’s not the same cinematographer; here it’s Giles Nuttgens, who’s come a long way from jobs like Battlefield Earth.  The soundtrack feels like a devil’s mix of minor-key country with a few rip-roarers thrown in; with the awesome Nick Cave and Warren Ellis at the helm, that’s only natural.  Music in this film serves to nail down a blend of AMURICA, while keeping clear-eyed about how so many folks are losing their American Dream.

As brothers Toby and Tanner, Chris Pine and Ben Foster sink into their roles.  There’s not a shred of Captain Kirk here, or Lance Armstrong.  Pine’s Toby is a man driven to bad things, and Foster’s Tanner is only too happy to get ‘er done.  During the film, the whole “saving the farm” felt like a MacGuffin; the boys seemed more interested in getting away with their crimes than actually settling down after all was said and done.  That farm was a long ways away from their minds, and perhaps their hearts, as one robbery lead to another, and another. And to keep things from turning too dark, there were moment of slapstick screwups that helped keep their humanity front and center for the audience.

There’s humor on the other side too; Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto lent a twisted levity to things, though mostly at poor Alberto’s expense.  With Marcus an old Texas codger thisclose to retirement, he lets loose with a ton of really, really inappropriate racial and ethnic jokes at the expense of poor Alberto.  But Alberto can take it, and Bridges gives these insults a hint of real affection for Marcus’s half Cherokee/half Mexican partner.  As Alberto, Birmingham gives as good as he gets, though in a slightly different vein.  And the supporting cast give authentic performances, from waitress at a diner who’s flirty and fed up, to Toby’s son, who shifts between not caring about his absentee father to desperately wanting that bond.

So to wrap; Hell or High Water is a deep, dark film that has moments of laughter that even out scenes of soul-crushing poverty and shocking violence.  Performances from the four leads as well as the scores of supporting players inject a realism that’s easy to identify with even as bullets fly.  It may be too dark, the plot too slow moving, for some.  But that’s a shame for them.  With it’s levels of morality and questions of right, wrong, and justice, Hell or High Water blends cops and robbers with old time Westerns and delivers a powerful tale.

#Protip: Sheridan’s script for Hell or High Water was the winner of the 2012 Black List.

Grade: A

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