Hell or High Water (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.

Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house.

Proverbs 6:30-31

 For the wages of sin is death

Romans 6:23

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Tanner (lft) & his brother stay at their ranch between bank heists. (c) CBS Films

Scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie grace us with one of the best modern Western thrillers to come along thus far this year. Dealing with a pair of bank robbers and two Texas Rangers on their trail, it is as much a study in character and the times and mood of our country as it is an adventure.

In a tiny town in West Texas two masked men barge into a Midlands branch bank as soon as a teller opens up. They have to wait until the manager shows up, and when he angers one of them, the robber slams his pistol across the victim’s face. They take only the money from the cashiers’ drawers, not attempting to get at the larger amounts of cash in the vault.

The two men are brothers, divorced father of two sons Toby (Chris Pine) and the ex-convict Tanner (Ben Foster). As the film unfolds we see it is Toby who persuaded Tanner to undertake the robberies so they can save the ranch, which their just-deceased mother has left them. Toby wants to provide for the two sons that he has neglected. When he goes to talk with them, we discover that it has been a year since his last visit. The bank, yes, one of the Midland Bank chain, is about to foreclose on the property, so Toby is racing the clock to meet the deadline. His desperation is especially heightened by the fact that an oil company wants to drill on their land because its survey indicates that they can pump over 2000 gallons a month out of the parched land. It is actually their lawyer, to whom they deliver their alleged casino winnings for negotiating with the bank holding their mortgage, who reminds them that they must raise the full amount by the date of foreclosing come hell or high water.

Toby is the brains of the pair, while Tanner is the exuberant one. Indeed, the latter seems to derive too much pleasure from the action of holding people at gunpoint and speeding away in an old dilapidated car. Can he be kept in check? What might their brandishing their guns about lead to? To avoid tracing their getaway car, Toby buries it in a large ditch he has dug behind the ranch house. He launders the money at the Native American casinos over in Oklahoma by buying large amounts of chips. While he drinks, Tanner uses some of the money to play poker, a game that he wins more often than he loses. By the end of their stay they cash in their chips, thus insuring that none of their bills can be traced to them.

Meanwhile Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to track the robbers down. The curmudgeonly Marcus, like the old lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, is on the cusp of retirement. He maight be old, but his mind is as keen as ever. And so, unfortunately is the inbred racism of his childhood, though it does become apparent that he actually likes his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) whom he is constantly insulting with racial slurs.

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Texas Rangers Marcus (rt) & Alberto are on their way to intercept the bank robbers. (c) CBS Films

With his slow drawl and flinty face, eyes half slits because they have taken in too much of the relentless Texas sunlight, it would be easy to underestimate the Ranger, much as everyone did with Detective Columbo. However, this old boy knows the thinking of the crooks he chases, correctly guessing that the robbers are probably gathering cash for a mortgage. He understands their modus operandi, entering a bank first thing in the morning so as to avoid customers, and stealing only the lower denomination bills that cannot be traced. He also notes that all of their banks are Midland Banks located in a small area together. He knows that they are bound to make a mistake, so he is confident they will soon catch them. Figuring which bank will be struck next, he rents a motel room, and the two wait for their prey to show up.

The brothers’ mistake comes when…well, here let’s just say that it is both a thrilling and a funny scene. Funny because while Toby is at a diner talking to a flirty waitress, Tanner goes across the street and robs the bank on his own. Yelling to his brother to start their car, he runs back with loose bills flying into the air as he tries to keep the ones he has stashed between his stomach and his shirt from falling out. Later, the film takes on a darker tinge because when you use guns to rob banks, sooner or later someone is going to shoot back. During a thrilling chase scene there are some very sudden, unexpected developments when Marcus and Alberto finally catch up with one of the brothers.

This is a film in which the countryside and the mood of the times are important. The wide open spaces with tiny, dilapidated towns and their small banks; the numerous bill boards with large words such as DEBT, CASH, and LOANS prominently displayed, indicating that in such a hound dog economy only the financial service industries are thriving.

The myriad of bit characters are spot on—the table of good ole boys at the diner who banter with Marcus; the bank clerks and managers; a belligerent Commanche at a casino whom we expect to get into a row with Tanner; the driver at a gas station who threatens Tanner with his gun, severely beaten by Toby when he comes up from behind; and best of all, two waitresses at diners—the flirty one upset when Marcus demands that she hand over the $200 tip that Toby had left her. The second is an old gal at The T-Bone Diner who confuses Marcus and Alberto when she comes to their table and says, “What don’t you want ?” As she rants on, we see that apparently she has grown tired of Eastern tourists coming in and demanding vegetable dishes not on the menu, this being a steak and potatoes place. If there were Oscars for cameo roles, the actress playing her would be nominated!

All four actors in the major roles are terrific, with Bridges especially dominating almost every scene he is in. What a far cry from his glib tongued Jack, the radio talk host in The Fisher King! His aging lawman character who lives solely for the pursuit of the bad guys is well demonstrated in the last scene of the film that ends with a note of ambiguity.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster make us feel sympathy for their characters, even though we know what they are doing is wrong. We can understand why they venture outside the law due to their impoverished background. The billboards mentioned earlier are aimed at desperate people like the brothers, indicating that they are victims as well as predators, a theme harking back to older Westerns featuring characters like Jesse and Frank Jamses The intelligent Toby knows he is the bad guy: in a poignant scene with his older son, he emphasizes that he does not want the lad to be like him.

The film even places the current mortgage crisis in which so many people are losing their homes into an historical context, one going back a couple of centuries. In a scene wherein Marcus mocks Alberto’s heritage, the latter observes that 150 years ago his people ruled in the land, and that the grandparents of the present owners took it. Now it is the banks that are taking it from them.

With Nick Cave’s music ably enhancing the somber mood, this film for me is just about perfect. Due to be released to a limited number of theaters on August 12, and then on a wider basis, I would urge you to mark the date on your calendar. If you love well crafted films that make you feel for the characters and think about their lives and the times, this is a film not to be missed!

 

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.

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