From the very first frame of, “Hell or High Water”, one can tell that the movie has a lot to say. The movie centers on two brothers, one an ex-con and the other a somewhat reluctant accomplice (played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively), who begin to rob small banks in order to prevent a foreclosure on a ranch their deceased mother owned, in the midst of a town (if not an entire state) befallen by economic downturn. Add some sheriffs, one played by Jeff Bridges and the other by Gil Brimingham (yes, that guy you see in those blasted, “Twilight” movies, and now you know his name), and you have a recipe for a basic cat and mouse game. Or, at least, that’s all it would be if it did not bother to give the characters shades of doubt, insecurity, desperation and faults. Thankfully, the movie does, elevating a modern take on the western into something of a humanist, sociopolitical statement on the old prejudices of America, the inequalities that chokes the life out of entire communities, and the lengths some of us will go to escape it all.
Granted, that does sound a bit preachy (not that I’m complaining). There is a tendency among moviemakers to flaunt, or try to twist, their knowledge of the genres they occupy. This can lead to some great things, but for every, “Drive”, “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”, or, “Army of Darkness”, there are dozens of self-referential works that seem outright ashamed of the very genre they occupy, muddying it up with either a strained sense of irony or with a political/intellectual angle that, however welcome, doesn’t gel with the overall narrative. But director David Mackenzie, working with a script by Taylor Sheridan (actor of, “Sons of Anarchy” and the screenwriter of, “Sicario”), cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and the editing force of Jake Roberts, skillfully works nuts-and-bolts moviemaking with frank politics and humanism. As the brothers work their way to salvation from poverty, one sees many glimpses of vacant buildings, signs promising payday loans and freedom from debt, and of regular folk trying to hold on to a sense of normalcy in the midst of societal decay. Oh, and racism. Lots and lots of racism.
See, where lesser movies would merely showcase racists and thus appear to endorse said viewpoints, “Hell or High Water” places the racism of its characters in such a way that it links to the poverty they also struggle through. Here is a story set in the midst of economies whose livelihoods were brought up, and ultimately collapsed by, bigotry, what with scenes of Ben Foster’s character taunting an indigenous poker player (Gregory Cruz) on their ancestry, while inside a Native American-owned casino. Yep. See also: a critical monologue by Gil Brimingham’s character where he rebukes the racist jokes of Jeff Bridges character (seriously, the latter guy is kind of a dick) by providing a short history lesson of indigenous tribe’s oppression at the hands of white colonialists, and the later oppression of the colonizer’s great grandchildren by institutions like the banks the two brothers rob. It’s a fiery, yet humorous speech, akin to a group therapy session where there is one passionate person striking upon the truth and refusing to let up for a moment…but it does little to no good. The oppression still continues. One of the brothers becomes even more reckless while the other continues to accompany and enable them all for the sake of (maybe) saving his mother’s land and bringing a better future for his estranged ex-wife (Marin Ireland) and her children. All tied together into an extended action sequence that could very well be one of the best of 2016, brutally punctuating the themes, tragedy and grit the movie has been serving you with its entire running time.
But even with such smarts and brutality, there are shortcomings, which come almost by the genre’s design. The movie is very preoccupied with machismo and masculine ideals about being a, “provider”, using the looming doom of the family ranch as an extension of masculine pride. So, if one is looking for a woman’s perspective, you will come up a bit empty handed (though there is one killer sequence by actor Margaret Bowman as a cranky waiter at a restaurant that is very well worth the price of admission alone). Not to mention that the movie is oddly tension-free up until near the third act, where a small string of coincidences and a lucky guess on behalf of Jeff Bridge’s character leads to the aforementioned brutal action sequence. Then again, that may be a bit nitpicky on my part, given that Gil and Jeff’s characters are sort of the, “No Country For Old Men” side of this movie’s equation, with the two talking and bickering in a banal sort of hell while the much younger brothers scrape by on a life of crime due to a mix of negligence and apathy from the remaining community.
With all of that said, hell yeah this movie deserves huge heapings of praise. Smart, brutal and honest, here is a modern-day Western for the young and old to check out, preferably in a theater with a sizable crowd (or, well, at home with Video On-Demand, Streaming or DVD/Blu-Ray if you’re into that).
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