Hell Or High Water is the perfect antidote to an underwhelming summer of loud but mostly mundane blockbuster fare.
Expertly crafted, intelligently plotted and masterfully told, the western heist crime thriller revolves around Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), brothers that are in desperate need of cash who decide that their only way of getting it is to rob banks across West Texas. Obviously their shenanigans soon get themselves noticed by the law. But since the amount they're stealing is below $40,000, FBI don't deem it necessary to get involved, leaving it to two Texas Rangers -- Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) -- to do just that.
The pair of duos soon set out on a collision course, as the brothers continue on their bank robbing quest to raise enough money while the officers follow their leads and soon begin to close-in. But things really het up when one of the robberies escalates into violence.
Unlike its cinematic peers of the last few months, director David Mackenize and writer Taylor Sheridan -- whose script for Hell Or High Water was the winner of the 2012 Black List -- keep their cinematic cards close to their chest. The main intentions and plan of the robbers are meticulously eked out, and when revealed only act to draw you in closer, and, far from glossy, it's instead proudly messy. Robberies go awry, but Tanner and Toby are able to quickly react and adjust in the moment so that they're never completely ruined.
You can see the blood, scars, sweat, and dirt under the fingers nails of its characters, which give it a nitty-gritty, earthy, and appealing working class texture. Meanwhile the Howard boys and detectives act in a smart and intelligent way. Rather than progressing because of the failings and slip-ups of the others, they're able to prosper through their own ingenuity and findings, and things only go awry because of the poetic randomness of life.
But, Hell Or High Water is a film that broods with a modern edge of resentment, injustice, and pent up frustration. The brothers are only after their money because the collapse of the banks has left them penniless and their home is about to be foreclosed, while even Jeff Bridges' close to retiring officer appears to forlornly look upon the land that he's spent his whole life protecting.
Hell Or High Water still makes sure to tip its hats to old-school Western traits, though, - while at the same time subverting them with a modern edge - as iconography primarily associated with the genre repeatedly pops-up. (There are several references to Cowboys vs. Indians, Jeff Bridges' Hamilton constantly makes Indian jokes to Gil Birmingham and Ben Foster almost gets into a scuffle with a Comanche in a casino, while we even randomly, but overtly, see a man riding a horse at a petrol station).
At the same time, despite their heinous activities, the Howard brothers are anti-heroes that are -- up to a point - still undeniably redeemable. Part of you will unashamedly want them to get away with their gun-totting antics. In its simplest form, that's because they've go-getters that have dusted themselves down after being screwed over, have thought about the only way they can get money back after being let down so viciously by the system, and then set about to do it.
In their attempts to do just that, Hell Or High Water forgoes the repeated rat-a-tat gun-fire bloodshed and violence of its modern peers. Instead, after its opening flourish, these set-pieces appear sporadically, which only makes them more intense and compelling when they arrive, while you can see the film building towards its collision course between the two warring factions. When it arrives it doesn't disappoint, unfolding in a surprising, tight, suspenseful, and action-packed fashion.
Don't let that fool you, though. Because _Hell Or High Water _is still very funny, as jokes and laughs -- even of the awkward and knowingly uncomfortable kind - are littered throughout.
Despite the inevitable comparisons to No Country For Old Men -- which will arrive because of its patient style and gorgeous cinematography - David Mackenzie litters the film with strong, original thematic content regarding legacy, death, family, vengeance, and capitalism, all of which bubbles underneath rather than being shoe-horned in, to make Hell Or High Water poetically idiosyncratic.
But it's in its performances that Hell Or High Water truly excels. Starting off with a gut-punching portrayal from Ben Foster, who is utterly mesmerizing as the film's resident psychopath that's still undeniably charming and watchable. Within seconds, Foster can raise the intensity before charmingly landing a joke, while he always maintains a rabid ferociousness that you know could break free at any time.
Within this, though, there are depths of humanity to his performance that everyone can relate to, especially in his brotherly bond with Chris Pine, his own pursuit of infamy and the adrenaline rush that comes with such murderous actions. All of which he does while looking imperiously cool.
At the same time, Jeff Bridges is smart, willy, yet a little lost as Detective Marcus Hamilton, and clearly has a blast playing such an irreverent, but hefty, role, while Pine is restrained but focused as Toby Howard, who is at the end of his tether. Alongside Foster, Pine creates a formidable sibling camaraderie that becomes more and more integral, and increases the suspense as the film rolls on.
One constant between each of the characters is just how tried they all look, though. Tired of the failures that have ravaged America, depleted the areas where the film is set and has left them behind while other sections have been able to get away with fraud and thrive. In the travels across these barren spells, Hell Or High Water is littered with images of foreclosure signs, abandoned homes, and a palpable sense of struggle in these towns and communities that are noticeably dwindling.
It makes you think that films like Hell Or High Water might be a dying breed. And considering that it's probably the best film of the summer, and a contender for the best of the year, that would be a crying shame for cinema.
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