Hell or High Water

HELL OR HIGH WATER. Starring: Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, and Katy Mixon. Directed by David Mackenzie. M Rating (likely). check the classification.102 min.

 This American drama is based on a script written by Taylor Sheridan, the writer for "Sicario" (2015). Two brothers rob banks to save their family farm, and are pursued for what they have done. The title of the movie is an American phrase meaning "I'll do it, no matter what".

 At the start of the movie, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster) rob two branches of the Midlands Bank in Texas to get money to pay for the mortgage on their family property. They are going deeper into debt, and the impending foreclosure of their farm spells economic and social disaster. The brothers steal unlawfully, but they view financial institutions as organisations that deserve their kind of justice for "stealing" legally.

 Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Comanche partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) represent the law and pursue the brothers. While Marcus and Alberto are engaged in pursuit, Toby and Tanner keep on robbing branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. In a final bank heist, a shoot-out occurs in which Tanner kills a security guard, and Toby is wounded. The brothers flee from the scene and split up. Tanner is killed by Marcus with a long-range rifle while Toby flees. Marcus hangs up his badge, and following his retirement, he confronts Toby about what happened in the past. Both Toby and Marcus are looking to find personal "peace" for what has occurred.

 The film is a tight and gripping Western that is layered with contemporary meaning. There are signs of modern anxieties everywhere in the film: those who service the banks carry guns; the banks are trying to get what profits they can from people who desperately need their money; the clients of the banks have guns hidden in the clothes they wear; and the law exists to be upheld. The film illustrates two modern political conflicts in particular: the violent consequences of citizens practising their right to bear arms, and the frustrations of the victims of financial institutions which fail frequently to demonstrate they have their clients' best interests at heart.

 This sharply scripted movie carries potent dramatic force, and the acting in the film is uniformly excellent. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine are especially impressive, and there is a delightful cameo piece by Katy Mixon as a cafe waitress, feistily defending the $200 "tip" she received from Toby, who gave her the bank's money. This is a movie in which no one is all bad, or all good. Characters relate emotionally to the situation they find themselves in, and their behaviour forcefully illustrates the nature of the tensions they feel.

 The film is very well directed, and photographed, and its cinematography dramatically captures Western-style action, and the isolation of dying outback communities. It is a classic Western movie clothed in modern garb. As a thriller Western, violence plays a typical part in its story-telling: it is there in the bank hold-ups, car chases, routine petrol stops, vigilante action, and what is done to make the brothers pay for what they did. Tension is maintained solidly by both action and script. Focus is kept consistently on the personalities of the characters depicted in the film, and a moody musical score reinforces the film's hard-edged, sad emotional tone. The film offers telling insights into dilemmas faced by American society today. Criminal behaviour, associated with America's gun culture, for example, is depicted as an accepted way of behaving, though the film fails to analyse the ethics of what it shows - whether citizens, for instance, should be armed "just in case".

 The film has a Coen-Brothers feel, especially in its cynical delivery of nostalgia, and use of black humour. Marcus racially taunts his partner with terrible-sounding comic asides, but is devastated when Alberto dies in the shoot-out. It offers quality cinema that harks back inventively and thoughtfully to Western movies of old, and its issues hold great contemporary relevance.

 Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Madman Entertainment

Released October 27th., 2016


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