Hell or High Water ***1/2

“Hell or High Water” is a slow burn, tense and sublime American drama that is superb in every way. It’s highlighted by fantastic writing and even better performances, and is one of the best movies of the year.

Is it worth $10? Yes

If the Old West told stories of good vs. evil and the protection of civilization against all who threaten it, this “New Western” adapts those principles for the present day with noticeably blurred lines. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are as smart as can be when robbing numerous branches of Texas Midlands banks: they wear masks, always use a different car, only take low denomination bills (because 100’s and above are traceable), and they max out at less than $10,000 each time. This keeps them below the radar of the FBI, but puts them in the sights of retiring Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

In addition to Toby and Tanner’s methodology being smart, their reasons are valid, albeit selfish. Toby knows the bank is ready to foreclose on their family’s land, and he wants to leave it in a trust for his two sons. So he and Tanner are stealing from the bank only to give the money back to the bank to pay off debts.

What’s fascinating about the story from Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) is that it’s layered, piece by piece, to continuously reveal information the viewer doesn’t necessarily expect. To wit, how they launder the money, Toby’s real motivation for saving the land, etc., are all appropriately grounded in logic and reason. Even better, these gradual reveals are punctuated by standout supporting performances, especially Margaret Bowman as a spirited waitress at a T-Bone café, Katy Mixon as a waitress who flirts with Toby, and Dale Dickey in the opening scene as a bank employee who gives the boys a piece of her mind. Movies go from good to great with these small standout turns, so kudos to casting directors Jo Edna Boldin and Richard Hicks for getting every role right.

Of course it’s Pine, Foster and Bridges who lead the way, and they too are excellent. Pine’s approach is stoic and sure as a dad who’ll do anything to provide for his kids, whereas Foster is unhinged as an ex con who feels he has nothing to lose. Bridges, as a weary widower who’s dreading his oncoming retirement, so perfectly embodies churlish Marcus that he could very well be in line for a supporting actor Oscar nomination. 

The film was directed by David Mackenzie, a relative unknown from Britain who is announcing his presence in a major way. Most impressively, he uses the arid, vast and sun baked landscape to create a sense of isolation that accentuates how lonely the characters feel: Toby because he’s divorced and rarely sees his kids, Tanner because he’s fresh out of prison and can’t acclimate back to society, and Marcus because he’s about to move into a solitary, boring retirement. Toby and Tanner are close, but you sense they know it’s fleeting, as if they’re both lost causes searching for a purpose and hoping beyond all hope that what they’re doing will make someone’s else’s life better.

It’s for this reason that we still like the brothers even though the armed robberies are dangerous for all they encounter. But heck we like Marcus too, especially his humorous and politically incorrect sentiments and uncanny instincts. How rare it is to see a movie in which you root for everyone in spite of his shortcomings, and for it to be executed with great tension and suspense to the very end. Do not miss “Hell or High Water.”

Did you know?
Although it’s set in Texas, the film was shot in remote areas throughout New Mexico.

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