DVD/Stream of the Week: HELL OR HIGH WATER – you won’t see a better movie in 2016


For the second straight week, my DVD/Stream recommendation is the superb Hell or High Water.

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I have it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas). The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico). Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way. He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important. It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers. Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise. While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him. Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust. He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law. Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies, “It’s been difficult.” He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail. Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior. Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”. Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers. Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece. Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow. I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

Hell or High Water is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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