By George M. Thomas
HELL OR HIGH WATER is the rare, engrossing movie that sticks with the viewer, making it easily the best movie of the summer.
The film's director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) can be lauded for telling a gritty, emotionally resonant story, but HELL works on so many different levels that doing so would sell it short.
Mackenzie and Sheridan create a western for the 21st century. It’s a morality tale layered with complex themes that will force many to question their belief system as they explore the issues of racism, corporatism, and the times in which we live.
It’s both a love letter to West Texas and an indictment of its past as two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), resort to robbing banks for their livelihood.
Sheridan’s story unfolds deliberately as the audience eventually learns that the brothers only rob a particular chain of local banks for personal reasons, and it’s all about correcting transgressions visited upon the Howard family.
They’ve never really had a part of the American Dream, Toby reasons in one particularly memorable moment. Being poor is a disease, he states, and that in his family so many generations have suffered through poverty that it’s become a sickness. It’s not a sickness – one in which your progeny don’t have a better life than you – he wants for his children.
The Howard Brothers’ crimes don’t happen without drawing heightened scrutiny, obviously. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his biracial (Mexican, Native American) partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) track the duo. Their relationship provides both insight into the culture of the region, while picking at the persistent sores that plague it.
As Marcus continues to make racist, bigoted jokes about Alberto’s background, the junior partner offers his observations and words of wisdom about the current state of affairs in the region and, for that matter, America.
While discussing how Caucasians plundered the West and the country and took what wasn’t theirs from natives and Mexicans, he points out how the same thing is happening to families who’ve held ranches, farms and property in general for generations. Alberto’s words haunt, brutalize, and drip with both truth and irony.
Is this the way America is headed, Mackenzie and Sheridan ask? It’s hard to say “no” for anyone who views the dry, seemingly barren area they explore. In HELL OR HIGH WATER, West Texas doesn’t just look barren physically, but in the film it feels as if the souls have been drained from the locals.
Mackenzie brilliantly helps us see things through his camera’s eye. The payday loan shops. The pawn shops. The foreclosure signs. They’re the rule, not the exception. He conveys the sense of desperation visually and through a cast that gives brilliant performances.
Start with Pine. He’s flashed his potential in the STAR TREK films as Capt. Kirk, and even showed in other efforts that he’s a skilled actor. Toby will ensure that he’s never typecast. He gives a raw, subtle, yet emotionally powerful performance.
Foster, however, is the powder keg as Tanner. He’s playfully dangerous with an emphasis on the latter. Yet, he possesses a strong ethic with it comes to family and duty. Foster brings that all to the forefront.
As for Bridges? At this point he’s an elder statesman of acting who creates another memorable character with another memorable performance. Add to the mix the chemistry created with Birmingham, and the assorted turns here approach perfection.
The cast and crew craft a modern Western, and as with many films in that genre, plenty of challenges faced those involved. They, however, always ended with some semblance of hope. In a summer of the bland and the bleak, HELL OR HIGH WATER excels at doing the same.
Movie: HELL OR HIGH WATER
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Rated: R or some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.
Running time: 102 minutes
George’s rating: 3.5-of-4