Dir. David Mackenzie, USA, 2016, 104 minutes
Hell or High Water is the best film to have disappeared from sight this year, and to have disappeared from the Oscars burlesque, even though it was nominated for best picture and best original screenplay.
With a solid script and memorable dialogue, and a story that takes us back to the day before moral values were stood on their head as they are today, Hell or High Water is a film of understated and grand ambition. Understated because so much of it involves values that we take for granted, or once did. Grand because it enters into the much-journeyed territory of the western, recently traveled with distinction by the Coen Brothers, and it doesn’t shrink for an instant from staking its claim there.
And what a claim. Two brothers are on a jag, robbing banks, because younger Toby (Chris) owes back child support to the wife who’s left him. Older Tanner (Ben Foster) has been in prison most of his adult life, but he knows how to scare bank tellers and how to steal cars. You’ll love the Texas quotes of Sydney’s Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon in the film’s first scene.
On the law enforcement side, there’s Marcus (Jeff Bridges), who’s about to retire from the Texas Rangers, as is his deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). This being old school, Bridges expresses fondness through the insult, and in Texas that means insulting Indians and Mexicans. This will be his last hunt, and he wants it to work.
There’s a lot of homespun wisdom in a script that hits home in almost every line by Taylor Sheridan. “They’re robbin’ a bank – the one that’s been robbin’ me for the last 30 years?”
Everything is helped along by the casting, whether it’s once-pure Toby and recidivist badass brother Tanner, or the now-avuncular Marcus, or the stalwart deputy, or angry ex-wife Elsie (Dale Dickey), whose face seems sculpted out of bitterness. Who needs any lines when you can look like that? We learn fast enough that she would have been far more embittered if she’d married the other brother who can seduce anything sitting behind a counter.
As we now watch punitive rule tighten its grip in Washington, there is something reasonable about the way that justice finds its way through this story, almost all the way. I won’t give that away, but there’s some moral clarity here in all the dust and car exhaust and macho bluster. And some truth. The biggest liars are the bankers. “Some rob you with six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
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