Hell or High Water (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
4May/170

Hell or High Water (2016)

The fields are on fire, banks are closing homes, and cops are no help. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard are tired of living under rules designed to sap them of their life.  They target banks, tip waitresses, and try their luck at the casino while Texas Rangers grow wise to their heists.  David Mackenzie directs Hell or High Water, with the script written by Taylor Sheridan, and stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham.

Hell or High Water, on top of being an excellent movie, has a narrative that asks then answers a question that's been bugging me with bank heists in cinema.  Why would any employee or guard risk their life for a bank?  Old school Westerns and early dramas had no shortage of evil bankers trying to foreclose the property of a beloved character and recent years have shown real-life bankers are worse on a significantly larger scale.  Banks don't need blood to continue running and our government has taken every step to make sure they can become zombies fueled by currency if the need arises.

The answer comes from the screenplay penned by Taylor Sheridan.  He wrote Sicario, which had little patience for the tropes of drug trafficking movies.  Hell or High Water continues in his simultaneous genre embracing and bucking trend by repurposing heists as a reasonable response to bank practices of today.  This isn't what makes Sheridan's work with Hell or High Water special, instead it's his careful attention to class and how that's shaped the modern west.

Chris Pine reaches unseen levels of darkness while Ben Foster bristles with chaotic life in Hell or High Water.

As the frontier collapsed and the old American west became just another part of civilization, maintaining the idea of a frontier became - in its own way - the new frontier.  Men and women who want to work and be left alone can't do so in the wave of capitalism rolling straight for them.  This is plainly spoken in Sheridan's dialogue, where he writes a rancher trying to get cattle away from a fire, "21st century and I'm chasing a fire to the river with a herd of cattle."  All the advancements in the world can't keep a poor worker keep his cows alive but they sure as hell can foreclose on his property if he doesn't.

The most interesting of these hapless characters is our ostensible hero, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton.  Since Marcus is played by Jeff Bridges we come prepared for Marcus to have a certain amount of country charm to him.  Surprise is, courtesy of Sheridan and Bridges, that Marcus is a creature of the past unable to see the harm he's doing in the present.  He's near cheerful in his attempts to secure cash from a waitress as evidence even though she needs the money desperately and tells him so.  Then there's the casual racism he peppers into every conversation with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), with Marcus telling Alberto he'll insult the Mexican side of him once he's done with Indian insults.

Marcus is monstrous in his charming way, working as the unofficial enforcer for a bank chain that has more sensible people in the building than those protecting it.  This view of small-town power funneled through racism is felt in the population too.  When Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) rob their first bank the owner reacts in shock with, "That's crazy, you ain't even Mexicans."  Seems getting a gun to his head isn't enough to temper his soft bigotry.  Similar stupidity runs rampant in a dark running joke of how many Texans are armed and how much damage they do trying to enact the, "Good guy with a gun," myth fighting back against Toby and Tanner.  Director David Mackenzie is smart not to play this up for laughs, as the tragic reality of gun culture is good enough for gallows laughs on its own.

Mackenzie, for his part, sets a stormy tone for the visuals with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens.  It's not one of natural or uncontrollable forces looking to crush Toby and Tanner, but of a restless anger that's spilling out from their bodies into the sky.  The darkened air follows them indoors, where an earlier scene with Toby in a diner shot tighter with more shadows as Toby hunches protectively over his food.  Whenever something threatens to lighten the mood, like a laughable bit of posturing from two idiots in a lime green car threatening Tanner, darkness explodes back into the frame in bursts of sudden violence.

After spending time with Jeff Bridges' Marcus, I think this level of menace toward the man is justified.

Pine shocked me with his command of the screen in those darker moments.  He doesn't carry Toby's fury with dignity, instead hunching his shoulders to look like a man desperate for violent release from all the world has placed on him.  I wouldn't expect the guy who plays Captain Kirk to rise to the challenge of acting opposite Foster but he did.  Foster's gotten so good at playing completely different variations of nihilistic aggression that his comparative sunniness here also comes as a surprise.  He's got a good-natured, if misguided, cheer and protectiveness of his little brother, conflicted about his limitations, but knowing his strengths and refusing to take flak from anyone.  Pine and Foster's scenes are less about what trouble Tanner's going to get into, and more what steps Toby will take to rectify any threat, creating tension throughout Hell or High Water in all scenes involving the two.

Tanner's desire for respect runs parallel to the dignity the best folks of Hell or High Water try to carry themselves with.  There's no dignity in dying for a bank, something Marcus would have done well to remember when questioning the proud Texans who aren't going to kowtow to his arrogance.  The heart of Sheridan's script is with the people, not the Texas Rangers, and sure as hell not with the banks.  That's something any good American should take the time to consider before, during, or after Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie.
Screenplay written by Taylor Sheridan.
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham.

Posted by Andrew

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