Hell or High Water (2016)

Review #1,416

Director:  David Mackenzie
Cast:  Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
Plot:  A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family's ranch in West Texas.

Genre:  Action / Crime / Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes).  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Runtime:  102min
Rating:  M18 for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality
International Sales:  Sierra Affinity
Singapore Distributor:  Shaw Organisation

“I've been working here for 44 years.  Ain't nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-Bone steak and baked potato.”

Hell or High Water comes highly-acclaimed, and mirroring the Oscar nominations, this is one of the best American pictures of the year.  It is a muscular work about two brothers Tanner and Toby, played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine respectively, who in order to save their family ranch, have to devise a desperate plan involving bank robbery in their sleepy neighbouring towns. 

So they mask themselves, armed with guns, seeking to raise enough money to pay off bad debts and save their home.  Tanner is an ex-con, an independent if volatile man who doesn’t really need the house, but who shares such a close bond with Toby that he would do whatever it takes to make sure their plan is successful.  Toby, a divorced father and a more compassionate man, seeks to give his children a better future, even if they may or may not like him. 

And then we have Jeff Bridges’ character, a weary and cynical sheriff who’s about to retire, whose conversations with those he meets largely providing the film with its offbeat humour.  He wants to catch those robbers, whoever they are, in one last hurrah.  He never lets anything get him down, least of all his pride. 

The director is David Mackenzie, who made such films as Hallam Foe (2007) and Starred Up (2013).  He has such a great grasp of the fundamentals of the bank heist thriller that the film proves solid and riveting, often in an old-school way.  Accompanied by music (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis no less) that gives it a potent dose of authentic Southwest ethos, Hell or High Water knows how to entertain like a page turner, yet gives enough room for the characters to develop.

The sizzling Ben Foster-Chris Pine chemistry owes a great debt to Taylor Sheridan (screenwriter of Sicario (2015)), whose gift for dialogue imbues their characters with a certain likability.  So is Bridges' character.  Hell or High Water is one of those rare films where we are made to root for folks on both sides of the law, without feeling any moral dissonance. 

Perhaps setting the story in the rundown, capitalism-ruined towns of the Southwest is the masterstroke—it has an old rustic charm, but ravaged by greed and ineffective laws.  What are laws anyway when there is no justice?  But there’s poetic justice in this one.

Verdict:  A solid and riveting bank robbery thriller with a potent dose of authentic Southwest ethos.


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