Hell or High Water

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Crime, Drama, Western Director: David Mackenzie

“Only assholes drink Mr Pibb,” says Tanner to Toby as they pull away from a gas station. Toby was supposed to get Dr Pepper, a Texan drink of choice, but may have been distracted by the wannabe gangster kid pulling a gun on his brother. The subsequent beating was vicious, but all parties involved seemed to understand–the thug, as his quivering passenger tells the approaching Toby, “got what was coming to him.” It’s a simplistic moral code, but it works in these parts.

Family. Violence. Guns. Oil. Dr Pepper. Questionable ethics. It’s all contained in this single scene of Hell or High Water, a Texas film if ever there was one. And every scene is like this in its significance to both story and aesthetic. Howard Hawks is reported to have said that a good movie has “three great scenes and no bad ones.” Hell or High Water has about a dozen great scenes: the Comanche, the T-Bone steak waitress, the opening bank robbery, the father-and-son conversation, the look between brothers, the last conversation in the film. They’re all memorable, phenomenal scenes. I can’t recall any bad ones. The direction and cinematography are excellent. It’s a phenomenal script from Taylor Sheridan, the writer behind Sicario, another moral tale of violence and depravity. The humor and heart of Hell or High Water makes its dark and bleak outlook much more bearable than Sicario, and I imagine audiences will find themselves enthralled by these characters.

The tale centers on two brothers, Tanner and Toby, portrayed by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively. The brothers have turned to crime, committing a string of bank robberies which seem increasingly reckless and dangerous as they unfold. The motivation behind these illegal acts are slowly revealed as the story progresses, but it’s important to note that the antagonist in this film is the financial system itself. The black hats and white hats in this Western are both overwhelmed and frustrated by the systemic injustice–they’re pitted against each other, yes, but they’re also caught up in a world of villainy beyond themselves. Still, the brothers have committed illegal acts, some of which have led to violence and death. Someone has to pay.

Hell or High Water owes a lot to the Coen brothers. The essential plot elements find easy parallels with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, while the central character of an aging Texas lawman is a mashup of NCFOM‘s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and Rooster Cogburn from True Grit. While he’s been recognized for so many iconic roles, Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton is one of his best performances yet, even better than his Oscar-winning role in Crazy Heart. He’s darkly funny and wise with experience, yet contains a lingering despair and underlying frustration. How does one retire from justice, exactly? How does one find peace with this world? It’s the question that haunts Hamilton right through the final shot.

There’s a small scene in a hotel room, where Hamilton and his partner, Alberto, watch a televangelist. The smiling preacher is a clear imitation of the style and look of Joel Osteen. Hamilton remarks that this guy wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit ‘im on the pecker. It’s a crass but wise statement, and indicative of the entire film. Hell or High Water suggests that you can’t serve God and Money, but you will serve something or Someone in the end. We need more movies like this one. Like a Texas field brimming with oil, Hell or High Water is accessible and simple at a glance, yet with a wealth of wisdom and ideas coming up from the depths.

IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2582782

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