Friday, August 12, 2016

Hell or High Water

A rare bright light in a largely disappointing summer movie season, Hell or High Water is a sizzling modern noir western with a nifty script and a trio of superb performances.

Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Writer Taylor Sheridan fuels the screenplay with a sense of moral complexity similar to what he did with the cartel thriller Sicario, and director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) excels at balancing scenes of jaw-clenching tension and a laid back Southern vibe in the rest of the film. Set in a sleepy, debt-ridden Texas town where even lawyers aren't fans of the way banks have screwed people over, the film follows straight arrow Toby Howard (Chris Pine), who enlists his criminal brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help him rob banks in order to pay off the reverse mortgage on their mother's ranch. They're smart about the robberies — only taking loose cash in the drawers, avoiding large bills, never going after the vaults, filtering the money through a casino — but Tanner, recently released from prison, is too much of a wild card. 

Eventually he makes a mistake, which helps U.S. Marshal Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) track the brothers and figure out their next move, and the film builds to a showdown between the two forces. But while normally we'd be pulling for one or the other to succeed, Mackenzie does a great job of making us feel for both sides, which just adds to the sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs when the two duos inevitably collide.

Bridges, who's just a shade more coherent here than his take on Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, is enjoyable as ever sauntering through this story. His lawman is on the brink of retirement, and since his character's wife has passed away, you get the sense that he's profoundly lonely and isn't looking forward to living out the rest of his days sitting on his front porch. He has a funny rapport with his partner, who's half Mexican, half Native American, and the two swap lighthearted racial barbs as they try to bring these criminals to justice. Like a bloodhound who's picked up a scent, his U.S. Marshal just won't let it go, and his dogged persistence hangs over the other characters like a shadow that will never dissipate.

Foster has played this kind of unhinged character many times before, but Bridges has played a similar character to the one he plays in this movie too, and they're both exceptionally good at leaning into those archetypes and giving them some slightly new shading. Foster's wheelhouse is playing men whose masculinity is challenged or threatened in some way (perceived or otherwise), and it's his character's aggressive, overeager approach that contributes to the brothers' plans going wrong.

But while it's great seeing Bridges and Foster stay in their lanes, so to speak, it's Pine who's the standout in this film. He's exceedingly different than his brash Captain Kirk in the Star Trek films, and the movie gives Pine some breathing room and enough time to really dig into this character and show off a different side of his capabilities. After watching him here, I get the sense he's been underutilized in Hollywood lately, and I hope he continues to stretch his legs as a performer.

Hell or High Water isn't quite the shoot-em-up heist thriller its trailers make it out to be. It's much more of a contemplative drama about economic desperation with some action scenes punctuated throughout. But however you end up classifying it, the film is one of the few truly great movies in an otherwise mediocre summer season.

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