HELL OR HIGH WATER – Review
Scottish director David Mackenzie demonstrates a deep affinity for the parched land and distant horizons of depressed West Texas in his modern western HELL OR HIGH WATER – for trailer parks and shabby motels and Indian casinos, and highways that go on forever. With its nail-biting tension, occasional burst of violence, commentary on the state of the economy, and a towering Jeff Bridges performance, HELL OR HIGH WATER is one of the best films this year.
Toby (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two boys, teams up with his loose cannon ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to rob branches of the Texas Midland Bank in order to pay off the lien on their late mother’s home before they can foreclose. There’s oil on the property and Toby sees an opportunity for his sons to escape the generations of poverty he has experienced. Justice initially seems to be theirs until they find themselves pursued by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a laconic Texas Ranger who is not looking for one last big case just weeks from his retirement, but finds it anyway with these two outlaws. As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Hamilton and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) on their tails, an epic showdown looms.
The Texas of HELL OR HIGH WATER is wide and dusty, dotted with once-thriving communities turned ghost towns and it’s handsomely photographed by Niles Nuttgen. Ben Foster is terrific as loose cannon Tanner but the real surprise is Chris Pine, who effortlessly dials down the Captain Kirk charisma in order to play a more down-to-earth character. It’s a sentimental story and these actors display convincing brotherly chemistry, but the film belongs to Jeff Bridges who dominates even when off-screen. Losing himself in the role, his Marcus is wise and cantankerous, with a mumbling vocal performance as he tries to be a step ahead of his prey. The old cop hooking a big fish on the eve of his retirement is a clichéd character, but when done as well as what Bridges does here, it’s a great one. The film’s trump card is the relationship between Marcus and his half-Mexican half-Comanche partner Alberto. Their many priceless conversations that touch on aging and racism and Native American history and TV evangelists are at the heart of Taylor Sheridan’s outstanding screenplay. Gil Birmingham gives a powerhouse performance and he and Bridges are an unforgettable movie team. All the characters in HELL OR HIGH WATER – every perfectly-cast waitress, bank employee, gambler, and well-armed Texan are vivid with faces that will stay with you. After a summer of stale sequels, uninspired remakes, and superhero duds, HELL OR HIGH WATER is the real thing – a movie that should generate serious Oscar buzz and is highly recommended.
5 of 5 Stars
HELL OR HIGH WATER opens in St. Louis August 19th in St. Louis at (among other places) Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater and The Hi-Pointe Theater