Hell or High Water (2016)
dir. David Mackenzie
written by: Taylor Sheridan
starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Daniels, Gil Birmingham
3 out of 4 stars
I’ve been cursed by westerns recently. Try to watch The Magnificent Seven before the remake is released, and my indifference puts me to sleep. Try to watch Annie Get Your Gun, and the uncomfortable racism of the 1950s infuriates me (Amy Schumer needs to reprise the role in a remake). The critically acclaimed Hell or High Water has been spreading wider, breaking into the top ten movies for last week, and is sure to go down as one of the highest grossing indie pictures of the year. Despite belonging to my least favorite genre, the crew behind it was promising, so I gave it a shot.
Director David Mackenzie follows up his tense prison drama Starred Up with a collaboration with Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan on the modern spin on a classic theme. When Toby Howard (Chris Pine) teams with his manic ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to save their family’s ranch, they embark on a series of bank heists to repay the reverse mortgage sold by those same banks. Handling the law’s side, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) track the duo through their increasingly risky forays. The action grows as the brothers get closer to their deadline in order to secure Toby’s sons’ futures and evade the police and Texas’s gun-toting population.
Starting with a sprawling shot of the brothers ending with a hold-up of bank teller Elsie (Dale Dickey), the film sets itself for a pulse elevating series of action. While it does manage to nail the actual heists, they become shorter as the movie progresses and much of the movie begins to focus on the brothers’ angsty relationship with each other and the bank with a side story regarding Marcus and Alberto’s partnership that would better be left removed. Bridges’ down-home, Texas redneck Sheriff is three shades too racist for my tastes, and they couldn’t quite find whether they were attempting to be “funny” or mean with him jabs at the half Native-half Mexican Alberto. The more their jabs falter, the more I am drawn out of the movie. A clever script does not make up for ill-conceived asides.
The writing is fine overall, but I found nothing too exceptional. Bridges does his expected fine performance, and Birmingham does exhibit healthy exasperation at his gruff superior. Adding more defensive for his part would have greatly metered the racist tones. Pine and Foster are the real standoffs in the macho show off. Foster excels as the wild-eyed older brother, showing the only affection he can toward his brother: with the criminal element. Pine showcases some exceptional soul behind the father. He’s calm despite himself; he knows what he’s doing is wrong, and his consternation is palpable. Not quite topping his run in Into the Woods, Pine has found his strongest dramatic role. The film certainly needed to change its mood a tad and could’ve shaved off twenty minutes, but as far as Westerns go, it was better than many. Heteronormativity and macho displays of -isms are never quite my thing.