Hell or High Water Stays Afloat on the Power of Its Performances
Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges go toe to toe with cliched characters and story turns.
Anyone who doubts the power of a great performance or the weight and worth good actors bring to a film would be well advised to check out the new film, Hell or High Water. The three leads here do fantastic work in the face of characters and a story that never quite approach their level, and together they make the film entertaining and engrossing despite itself.
Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father of two who wants nothing more than to leave his kids with lives better than his own in a harsh economy, and together with his spontaneous, thrill-seeking, recently paroled brother Tanner (Ben Foster) he sets a plan in motion to achieve just that. The duo begin a spree of small, smartly-orchestrated bank robberies at multiple locations across west Texas. The crimes are too insignificant to hold the attention of the FBI, but a pair of Texas Rangers take the case and quickly find themselves in pursuit of the brothers. Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is days away from a retirement he’s not quite ready for, while the younger Alberto (Gil Birmingham) already has big plans for his own post-career life.
If anything in the paragraph above stood out to you as particularly cliched then congratulations! You already know where one or more of the characters will be by the time the end credits start rolling. David Mackenzie’s (Starred Up) American debut, from a script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), is a simple story held together by the talent and charisma of its cast even as they’re pummeled by a barrage of cliches and the deafening drumbeat of its message.
Most movies are variations on similar themes and plots. Under Siege and Speed for example are in some ways just Die Hard on a ship and a bus, respectively, but they succeed through details of their own creation. Fail to find your own voice though and you end up with the likes of Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Hell or High Water floats somewhere in between.
It opens strong with quick and witty introductions to the characters as the robbery spree begins, but each of them are revealed to be one-note creations. Toby’s the “good” brother who insists on committing crimes without hurting anyone, and Tanner’s the wild card destined to cause pain and screw things up. The Rangers fare no better, but at least there we’re treated to nearly non-stop banter between the old coot and his reluctant protege.
While character and story depth are kept to a minimum great effort is expended in ensuring audiences catch the film’s themes of economic despair and the slow strangle of the American Dream by financial institutions ruled by greed. We don’t just get graffiti bemoaning the state of the economy, we get signs peddling debt relief, fast cash, and a multitude of homes for sale. Even periphery characters are given time to share their tales of woe (a waitress struggling to pay her mortgage) or disgust towards the banks (a diner patron unmoved by the robberies).
Mackenzie and Sheridan apply that same heavy hand to Texan/American attitudes towards guns. Instead of one instance of a civilian carrying a concealed weapon, we get four. None of them offer a supporting argument for the effort either as the conceit of a civilian “good guy with a gun” achieves very little here.
Those issues combined should be enough to drown Hell or High Water in its own stagnant story juices, but there are moments in Sheridan’s script that pop with life while the cast succeeds in elevating the entirety. Smart beats like the brothers’ robbery rules (morning is best, don’t take cash bundles, bury the getaway cars) exist alongside displays of wit and laugh out loud humor. Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capture Texas’ competing desolation and beauty, and the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis mirrors that contrast on the sonic front.
Ultimately though it’s the cast that delivers despite the banality of the story they’re servicing. Bridges is very much in old lawman mode, but this is a far more amiable, understandable, and distant relative of Rooster Cogburn. He’s playful but focused, and one scene towards the end of the film stands as some of his strongest work in years. Pine has seemed for some time now like a character actor trapped in a leading man’s career, but he more than proves himself here with a humanity and immediacy that isn’t on the page. Foster meanwhile is in a very Foster kind of role, but it’s a grounded, more controlled variation that holds us rapt. Birmingham is mostly relegated to reacting to Bridges, but he stands out in a scene that sees the half Indian, half Mexican Alberto making an observation on the world before him – whites arrived and stole the land from the native people, and now the whites are having their land stolen by the banks. It’s yet another repetition of the film’s smothering theme, but Birmingham delivers it with a perfect pairing of rage and resignation.
Hell or High Water is a good movie that probably looks even better against the movie-going doldrums of this summer in particular. This modern-day western is let down repeatedly by laziness, but it’s also often funny, never dull, and terrifically acted throughout.