Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In Theaters: HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, John-Paul Howard, Margaret Bowman, Taylor Sheridan. (R, 102 mins)

A strong, character-driven thriller that emerged as a summer sleeper after being rolled out the old-fashioned way--limited release over a few weeks and expanding nationally with strong word-of-mouth--HELL OR HIGH WATER is a timely drama about family, duty, poverty, and getting revenge on the system. It does get a little ham-fisted on occasion, with characters required to give a florid speech every now and again as they look at a bank and vent their anger at everything it represents, but director David Mackenzie (YOUNG ADAM, MISTER FOE) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) excel at creating very real people that the audience comes to know thoroughly over the course of the film. Unemployed gas driller Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his bank-robbing, ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are hitting the small-town branches of the regional Texas Midlands Bank, usually before open as an employee arrives and never taking packs of money, only the loose bills in the tills. They get away, bury the car, and move on to the next town. Meanwhile, wily old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is looking at forced retirement but wants to nail the robbers first ("I may have one hunt left in me"), following their criminal path with his Mexican/Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As they make their way across the state toward Oklahoma, the Howard brothers are almost undone by Tanner's impulsive behavior that includes a reckless, spur-of-the-moment robbery while Toby is picking up the check at a diner across the street. Hamilton is stymied in his pursuit by behind-the-times Texas Midlands, with two of the targeted branches not having an electronic surveillance system, instead relying on a VHS recorder that's not even working. The robberies are masterminded by Toby, with Tanner tagging along because he's experienced. Their mother recently passed away and Texas Midlands was threatening foreclosure even as she quickly withered away from terminal cancer. Toby's ultimate plan for the stolen cash is an inventive one, and he does it with the best intentions--to provide his two sons with his bitter ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) the kind of life he and Tanner never had. He's breaking the law to break the cycle of poverty that, as is the case with so many others in these desolate nether regions of rural America, has been passed on from generation to generation.

HELL OR HIGH WATER recognizes the noble reasoning behind Toby's actions but never makes him or Tanner heroes, even though the locals questioned by Hamilton and Parker are all too happy to see Texas Midlands get screwed. The only clear villains of the piece are those in the financial sector, who are treated with scorn and condescension by everyone, even Hamilton, who arrives at one crime scene, sees a well-dressed manager and gruffly intones "Well, let's talk to this guy here, he looks like someone who can foreclose on a home." Pine and Foster are excellent as the sibling bank robbers, and even a trigger-happy loose cannon like Tanner is humanized to some degree and not played as a stock psycho by Foster.  But HELL OR HIGH WATER's biggest joys are provided by the national treasure that is Jeff Bridges. It's another Oscar-caliber performance, on the same level of burned-out melancholy as Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN but given a more gregarious manner in his rapport with Parker. Indeed, the testy ballbusting between Hamilton and Parker is hands-down the bromance of the year, so much so that you could easily watch an entire movie of Bridges and Birmingham in character, just sitting around dogging on each other. Whether it's Parker getting on Hamilton about his age ("You gonna do somethin' or just relax and let Alzheimer's run its course?") or Hamilton's constant razzing about Parker's dual ethnicities ("I haven't even gotten to my Mexican insults yet. I'm still on the Indian ones."), these two have an unspoken respect and dedication to one another ("You're gonna miss me pickin' on you," Hamilton tells Parker), an ironclad bond that makes events that transpire utterly heartbreaking.

Like other recent indie films that have addressed foreclosure and those doomed to struggle in a vicious cycle of being screwed and marginalized by the system (SUNLIGHT JR and 99 HOMES come to mind), HELL OR HIGH WATER is filmed in areas that have been hit hard, augmented by a downbeat score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Abandoned houses and boarded-up businesses line the streets. Old-timers are embittered, beaten-down, and done giving a shit (the "What don't ya want?" T-Bone waitress played by Margaret Bowman is a real crowd-pleaser) and young people just cruise around looking for fights (watch Toby handle the two meatheads blasting aggro-metal and waving a gun at Tanner at a gas station). Sheridan was best known as the ill-fated Deputy Hale on SONS OF ANARCHY before he switched careers to screenwriting with SICARIO. In between, he directed VILE, one of the worst horror films ever made, and one that was mentioned a lot on his Facebook page but mysteriously vanished from his IMDb profile and reappeared as the sole credit on another as soon as SICARIO started getting some positive buzz (c'mon, man--if James Cameron can own up to PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, you can admit to VILE). His hapless attempts at scrubbing his past aside, Sheridan has proven himself adept at creating believable, fully-rounded characters but it sometimes comes off as a little too scripted and "messagey." It's not enough to be a huge issue, but some more subtlety would've been a good thing in these fleeting moments. In the end, HELL OR HIGH WATER is one of 2016's best, a film that doesn't let anyone off the hook, one filled with nail-biting tension when it counts most and genuine, devastating emotion when you least expect it.

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