‘Hell or High Water’ thrills

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Capitalism is the villain in David Mackenzie’s neo-western “Hell or High Water,” the driving force behind the thievery at the center of the film: the seizure of the West Texan land from the Comanche, the slow drain of wealth from Texans to the banks and the two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) determined to keep their family ranch by any means necessary.

The movie opens on what becomes a regular sight throughout its runtime — a deserted parking lot encircling a boarded up business. The camera pans past graffiti that reads “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us” as it makes its way toward the front door of a Texas Midlands Bank branch. A bank employee opens the door only to have the brothers shove a gun in her back and force her inside. A hiccup in their plans aside, they’re in and out quick, taking only loose small bills and leaving the dye packs behind. Small-time crooks don’t interest the FBI, so two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are assigned to the case.

Pine’s Toby is the brains behind the plan. The banks they choose to rob are carefully selected — the explanation behind the plan is patiently revealed over the course of the first two acts — the only obstacle is Foster’s Tanner, Toby’s older jailbird brother, who might be helping his brother for reasons of personal excitement as much as a feeling of fraternal commitment.

The screenplay, written by “Sicario” scribe Taylor Sheridan, is full of sizzling dialogue, from Bridges’s constant barbs at his partner to a waitress who tells the Rangers they’ll have to get a warrant to seize her (possibly stolen) tip money, thank you very much. Colorful side characters are just as essential to painting Mackenzie’s portrait of West Texas as the dead and dying towns the brothers pass through.

Mackenzie’s film brings to mind the Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men,” the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grim novel set in West Texas. McCarthy used 1980 West Texas to explore the unmerciful, Job-ian nature of the world. The Coens had Anton Chigurh, a bizarre fella’ with silenced shotgun and a bad haircut, to use as an avatar for their unseen evil. “Hell or High Water” employs a villain which puts America’s most famously maverick land in shackles and slowly drains its life force. Mackenzie’s banks might be the scarier villain.

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