Silver Screen: Hell or High Water ****1/2
Hell or High Water is either the long-awaited reprieve to a summer full of bad movies, or the first great movie of the fall.
Summer could use the help. In general 2016 has been a bad year for movies, with a dearth of new projects by great directors and a glut of blockbusters that turned out to be almost across-the-board disappointing, even when judged by the affably low standards of summer-matinee fare.
But Hell or High Water feels like that pivot out of movies made for fourteen-year-olds in China and into that sweet spot before the self-congratulatory pomp and schmaltz of Oscar season. It’s a handsome, thoughtful genre film unapologetic of its caper-flick gunplay and throwback-Western motif, both soulful and viscerally satisfying.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster costar as broke-down brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. While Tanner served yet another jail sentence, Toby oversaw their mother’s terminal illness and the subsequent collapse of the family farm, which is due to go back to the bank. To scrounge up the money needed to leave the family property to Toby’s estranged sons, they cook up a bank-robbery scheme that sounds to them like justice.
Soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is three steps behind the Howard brothers, but the wily old coot— despondent over being put out to pasture— has a hunch how to stop the robberies. Marcus is paired up with his brother-from-another-mother Alberto (Gil Birmingham), his faithful partner. Marcus overdoes the jibes about Alberto’s half-Mexican, half-Native American heritage, which director David McKenzie nicely conveys by holding the camera on Birmingham’s face for an extra few seconds as he grimaces his way through another racial crack. But despite going heavy on the salty commentary, Marcus is entirely dependent on Birmingham, who’s all he has left since the death of his wife.
The two brothers and the two lawmen trace a crooked path northward into Oklahoma. The script from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan is propelled forward by classic elements of suspense— an imposed timeline, a crumbling plan, a narrow window of success. But despite the crisp pace, Sheridan is able to linger in these moments of male bonding, be it the brothers engaging in an impromptu wrestling match or the aging lawmen sharing a smirk over the rattlesnake-mean waitress slinging their hash. But even these moments of well-earned levity are suffused with the quiet tension of the untenable positions all four men will be put into when their paths finally cross.
Certainly Hell or High Water has one of 2016’s best ensemble casts. That will still be the case by year’s end. Bridges is a kind of zen-master actor, a thespian Buddha, an ancient, reincarnated lama of the theater. Both deep, unspoken sadness and easy humor are always immediately within his reach, and he can summon them with barely a movement. Bridges is perfectly paired with the deeply sympathetic Birmingham, who must grit his teeth through the many allowances we make to our mentors and elders.
Ben Foster is one of today’s most intense and naturalistic working actors. Like Steve Buscemi and Ben Mendelsohn, fellow character actors who frequently outshine their stars, he has a presence that alters the gravity of the movie whenever he’s onscreen, bending it in his direction. He’s nicely paired with Pine, who’s the movie’s weak link only in that he’s just a little too pretty for the role. He’s a believable performer, but his matinee-idol blue eyes radiate out between his dusty hat and his unkempt cowboy clothes like a neon sign in a forest preserve.
If having a too-good-looking lead is your biggest problem, you’re going to be okay. And Pine really is a good actor, just not good enough to mask his Hollywood glow in such a richly textured middle-American setting. McKenzie finds some wonderful music cues to transition between scenes, but especially when the action gets going he mutes the score to heighten the realism. The robbery sequences are both plausibly mundane and breathtakingly tense. McKenzie keeps his cool throughout, keeping his camera moving in wide arcs, or capturing the frenetic motion of the escape by putting a static camera in the backseat of a speeding getaway car.
Hell or High Water rarely if ever hits a false note, although it overplays a true one. The repetition of background signs announcing foreclosure sales, check-cashing, or debt relief to highlight the tough economic times in small town America is a drumbeat so repetitive it almost becomes condescending. It’s as though McKenzie doesn’t trust his audience to get subtext that’s basically already text— that or he just cannot overstate how really poor poor people are.
But that’s an honest mistake, and a mild one in a movie with so many of its priorities properly aligned. From the crackling dialogue of the script to the austere beauty of its execution, Hell or High Water is a high-water mark.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.