Hell or High Water (2016)
The world is many things but it is rarely black and white. There are good people and bad. Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes bad do good. The motivating factors vary for either. And then there are the muddled situations in which bad people do bad things for a good reason. That is the territory in which Hell or High Water treads.
Both modern-day Western and heist film, Hell or High Water follows Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), two brothers, through a week-long crime spree in the dusty towns of West Texas. The picture opens with the Howards committing a pair of bank robberies. There are more to come in the ensuing days. Viewers soon learn the motivation behind the robberies and the urgency of stealing a set sum of money by the end of the week. Hot on their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham).
This is a movie about relationships. The relationship between the Howard brothers and between the Rangers. It examines the brotherhood of blood and the brotherhood of profession. It captures great moments between the brothers who argue in a way that only family can and will. Transversely, the relationship between Hamilton and his partner, Alberto Parker, starts very rocky. Hamilton is, politely put, rough around the edges. He is acerbic and crass. He relentlessly makes jokes at Parker’s expense about his mixed heritage. However, their relationship evolves from adversarial to warm as the plot unfolds.
Another great relationship is the one between Toby and his ex-wife Debbie, played to icy perfection by Marin Ireland. In the real world, there are often no second chances. Once a relationship has been compromised—be it through deceit or neglect—it is, at worst, destroyed, or, at best, it will never again be as intimate as it once was. Toby and Debbie’s relationship lies somewhere in this realm. The damage has been done and things will never be the same again. The coldness in Debbie’s eyes for Toby will forever remain.
Hell or High Water reminds me of the myriad action-packed crime dramas of the late-1960s and early-1970s. One specific film that came to mind was Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Both pictures contain the same dusty, gritty, recklessness about them. For those that haven’t seen DMCL, it has one of the great shock finishes of any film of the last 40 years. (Pro tip: Track it down and watch it as soon as possible.) The cool thing about Hell or High Water is that early on it sets the table for the expectations of the viewer. It twice clearly spells out what the fate of the brothers is expected to/should be. However, when the third act rolls around, it subverts it…sorta.
Director David Mackenzie helmed an amazing film. The script is top-notch. It is punchy and compelling and lived in. It is bursting with action and tension. Eastern New Mexico, posing as western Texas, is every bit as gorgeous and breathtaking as the southwestern United States is legend to be. It is chock full of three-dimensional characters and performances. The four leads (Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham) all have chemistry with their on-screen partners. Each delivers, both alone and in tandem. But, man, there are some magnificent supporting performances. Just wait until you meet the waitress at the T-Bone Cafe. The actor, Margaret Bowman, hijacks the movie for about 3 minutes. She is so funny and sassy and…real. Solid performances up and down the board are the basis of a great film. This is a great film.
Sometimes life just doesn’t work out. Fear, bad choices, or arrogance will wreak havoc on a relationship. Taylor Sheridan recognized this and crafted his script as such. The film is permeated with a sense of inevitability. In short, the end result is destined to be the end result. But there is also hope. Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, the course is set. But sometimes light can be born out of the dark.
Sometimes bad people do bad things for a good reason.