Review: "Hell or High Water"

Ben Foster's brilliant performance shines in this gripping tale of two outlaw brothers

By Adam Hlava

 Make no mistake, this film is set in the South (image via YouTube)

Make no mistake, this film is set in the South (image via YouTube)

Hell or High Water is a gripping story of two bank-robbing brothers and an aging Texas Ranger on their tails. Alternatively titled “Texas: The Movie,” the film reminds the audience every chance it gets that it take place in the most Texas-y part of Texas that exists. The heavy southern twangy accents, the drinking of cold beer on a porch, oil pumps lining empty fields digging for crude, and cattle ranchers on horseback. Texas!  At one point the film even pauses to watch as ranchers herd their cattle along plains being ravaged by wildfire. The scene is particularly effective especially if there was any second where the audience might forget that the film takes place in the dusty South.

Directed by David Mackenzie, the story involves down on their luck brothers Toby (Chris Pine, taking a break from helming the Starship Enterprise) and Tanner (the excellent Ben Foster) who resort to robbing small-town banks around Western Texas in order to pay off the mortgage on their family farm before the bank can foreclose.  Ironically their targets are the Texas Midlands Banks, the same chain of banks that owns the lien on their farm. It’s your classic robbing Peter to pay Peter scenario, and it’s a great little twist. In fact the film doesn’t shy away from making a point that banks are evil and will take all of our homes. We also learn that Toby’s plan is to pay off the bank and entrust the farm to his sons. “Being poor is a generational sickness” he recounts, coming from a long ancestry squalor. It’s an effective motivation for the lengths to which Toby (who otherwise had never been in trouble with the law) will go to ensure a future for his family.

 Image via YouTube

Image via YouTube

Jeff Bridges, doing his most “Jeff Bridges southern drawl” imaginable, plays a Texas ranger on the heels of the two brothers as they scour Western Texas for new banks to heist. He and his partner  played by the great Gil Birmingham (you may recognize as Jane Krakowski’s father in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) seem to always be two steps behind until correctly guessing the final bank the brothers rob at gunpoint. I did miss about 10% of the film’s dialogue due to Bridges’ heavy southern accent. If you’ve seen his Rooster Cogburn take in True Grit or whatever he was in Seventh Son, you know what mean. It’s a bit of a gag at this point and Bridges (who’s from Los Angeles, by the way) is almost becoming a parody of himself, constantly over-dramatizing the southern accent as if he’s talking with cotton balls stuck underneath his bottom lip. Bad accent aside, it was a fine performance of an aging lawman on his way to retirement.

Ben Foster’s performance as Pine’s trouble-making brother really elevates the material, and the film is at it’s best when he’s on screen. Foster had a breakout performance in a similar role in 3:10 to Yuma (2007) as an old west outlaw, and he seems to be drawing on pieces of that character once again. The crooked smile, dim-witted demeanor  and raspy drawl make him perfect for this type of character, and he’s easily the best part of the film. We learn a little through exposition that he just got out of a stint in prison, during which time their mother and proprietor of the family farm passed away. In a poignant scene Tanner lets a little raw emotion seep out as he learns of his mother’s passing, it’s quite touching in contrast to the character’s unlawful side we see throughout most of the film. A great performance from a truly talented actor.

 Image via YouTube

Image via YouTube

Hell or High Water’s cinematography is a sight to behold. The movie opens in a single take as the camera follows an employee entering a bank and suddenly followed in by two masked men with guns. The camera stays on Toby and Tanner as they make their escape, narrowly avoiding police through dusty back alleys and finally out of the town. The camera work is thrilling especially during the few car chase scenes, something the makers of Jason Bourne could take a few notes on. Additionally the vistas of the plains are gorgeous, although a caveat - it was actually filmed in New Mexico. But hey, the South is the South, and it’s a beautifully shot and executed film nonetheless.

The narrative structure reminded me of Midnight Special where the film plays more like an extended third act of a story. It begins with Toby and Tanner’s bank heist plan already in place, but we never see their struggles leading up to it. It’s hard to sympathize with the brothers’ relationship, and plight with the family farm nearing foreclosure. Pine and Foster have great chemistry, but the film would have been better served if we had a little more lead up to their crime spree and had more time to develop sympathy for the main characters.

Even so, Hell or High Water is a highly enjoyable outlaw film with a solid cast and sympathetic characters. It never tries to get too deep or heavy handed as similar films in the genre like Heat or No Country for Old Men. It all comes together in a very tight package that showcases some wonderful acting talent from the likes of Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges.

Hell or High Water opens nationwide August 12th

Verdict: 4 out of 5 Seats