Hell or High Water” has all the signs of a tough crime chase film, but it sneaks up on you as an unexpectedly moving story about two brothers. Incredible performances from Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster take basic characters — the tough lawman, the rogue, the father — and transform them into unforgettable people.
The film opens with two brothers robbing a bank in their home state of Texas. They are somewhat shaky and inexperienced; this is not “Ocean’s Eleven,” but a gritty and realistic crime with fairly small stakes. They only get a few thousand dollars. As they drive away, exhilarated, their dynamic starts to play out. Toby (Chris Pine) is the straight arrow, a divorced dad desperate to pay back child support and see his sons again. Tanner (Ben Foster) just got out of prison and Toby realizes his brother’s criminal activities are his only hope.
The brothers want to raise enough money to stop foreclosure on their late mother’s farm, even though Tanner was disinherited. He reckons it was because their mom held it against him that he killed their dad. The boys plan a series of robberies from the smallest branches of the bank that owns their farm, and intend to pay the bank back with its own stolen cash.
Enter Jeff Bridges as Marcus, a Texas ranger weeks from forced retirement. His wisdom and experience are evident in his immediate comprehension of the situation, and watching Bridges command his role, and banter with his partner, is immensely satisfying throughout the film. The Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) screenplay does not disappoint.
It is an extended game of cat and mouse as the boys continue their spree, with Marcus closing in on them, but this film is so much more than that. The question of right and wrong has never been less clear, and sympathies run the gamut for these two. Most people do agree, however, that the banks are more to blame than anyone or anything else. If “The Big Short” made you mad, you will love “Hell or High Water.”
If you see two squinting, weathered guys in cowboy hats and think you know what’s coming in this film, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. This film is complex and emotional, and rather than a stock crime caper flick, it has a lot to say — like when, late in the film, we witness a dramatization of the proverbial “good guy with a gun” argument. One brother comments ruefully, “That hidden carry permit sure complicates a bank robbery.” The suspense comes not just from whether or not Marcus will catch the criminals, it also comes from our ever-shifting loyalties to the characters.
The Nick Cave soundtrack complements the story beautifully and the cinematography goes beyond the standard Texas tumbleweed fare. Above all, this film boasts the most satisfying ending I can remember for a movie. Check it out now, so when Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges get their Academy Award nominations, and Taylor Sheridan starts scooping up more awards for his screenplay, you will be in the know.
“Hell or High Water” is currently playing at the Crescent Theater and the Eastern Shore Premiere Cinema.
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