At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Hell or High Water “2016”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Neo-Noir Western Crime/Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Melanie Papalia, Amber Midthunder, Taylor Sheridan/Runtime: 102 minutes

In the long-gone year of 2015, a guy by the name of Taylor Sheridan decided to make the transition from being a performer in front of the camera to writing the screenplays for them with a slice of cinema known as Sicario. A slice of cinema that, besides being a personal favorite of this reviewer, managed to garner quite a bit of positive feedback, awards attention, and a nice healthy box office total for being full of incredibly well-written and three-dimensional characters as well as for being able to make distinct tropes of the genre into fairly novel material and to build suspense in wonderfully unique ways. This now brings us to his 2016 slice of cinema, and movie I am reviewing today, Hell or High Water, and just like Sicario this one is an absolutely riveting slice of cinema that puts a wonderful emphasis on intricacies of humanity in the desolate landscape of West Texas rather than any cinematic trappings from start to finish. Indeed in many respects, this slice of cinema is just as much on the level of Sicario especially when it comes to atmosphere and characters. Yet whereas Sicario is a significantly bleaker cinematic affair, this slice of cinema is a lot more vibrant whilst also comprehending not only the state of Texas, but her denizens in a manner that not many have been able to achieve. Yes this slice of cinema does take you, the viewer down a distinct number of paths, but this slice of cinema is still able to give the viewer a genuinely riveting cinematic ride that is wonderfully shot, phenomenally performed, and one that feels realistic from a pathos perspective in the best way possible.

The plot is as follows: Taking movie goers to the area of the country known as West Texas, Hell or High Water gets its riveting yarn underway by introducing us to a pair of brothers by the names of Toby and Tanner Howard respectively. Tanner, we quickly learn, is not only the elder brother of the two, but he is also an unapologetic career criminal with a sociopathic bent and yet he has somehow, when our story gets underway, managed to keep himself out of the slammer for about a year give or take which for this guy is nothing short of a miracle. Then there is the younger, and more respectful of the law, brother Toby and we soon learn that is in a bit of a bind. Not just with his wife and two sons who he owes a fair bit of child support to, but also with the bank. This is because, despite Toby and Tanner’s dear ol’ mom tragically passing away shortly before the start of our slice of cinema’s narrative, the bank is still choosing to foreclose on the ol’ homestead and now Toby must get a pretty hefty pile of cash together or else the bank will seize the estate. To that end, we see that with extraordinary logical precision Toby manages to come up with an incredible if not highly dangerous and straight up illegal idea on how to get the money. That being that together the brothers are going to tear their way through a bunch of small towns in West Texas and knock off the branch of Texas Midland Bank in those towns. However in order to do so, they will always hit the bank first thing in the morning and limit themselves only to the smaller denomination bills that can be found in the register instead of the safe. On top of all that, the duo has managed to acquire a group of getaway vehicles that, after using one in a robbery, will be buried in a pit at the back of the ranch followed by the brothers taking their newly gotten gains and ingeniously laundering it at a nearby Native American casino. However, it isn’t long before the brothers and their machinations soon find themselves smack dab in the crosshairs of a pair of Texas Rangers consisting of the stoic yet wry Marcus who is three weeks away from retirement and his consistently being put down by his partner’s insensitive insults yet still loyal nevertheless compatriot Alberto. Thus as our brothers in arms start to close in on our pair of quasi-sorta Robin Hoods, the question soon becomes will the 2nd pair of brothers be able to finish raising the money and thus escape the long arm of the law and drive off into the sunset or will the first pair catch them, slap the handcuffs on them, and take them in? Suffice it to say that is something that I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader…..

Now right off the bat I will say that in terms of the work done behind the camera the helmsmanship by Mackenzie does a wonderful job of ensuring that the moments where the brothers engage in their robberies not only flare up with out of nowhere bursts of violence, but that their ensuing getaways liven up the mood and atmosphere in this slice of cinema exponentially between scenes that are rooted more in dialogue delivery than anything else. I also felt that the choice to cast such character actors as Dale Dickey and Buck Taylor also does a wonderful job of further fleshing out the very specific region of the country where this slice of cinema is taking place. At the same time I also feel props must be given to this film for taking note of the fact that a lot of people in this part of Texas are clear advocates of open-carry laws and as a result we see this film is able to utilize this to also incorporate a few light comedic moments consisting of cowboy firearm shenanigans. We also see that this slice of cinema is the blessed recipient of a beautiful script from the immensely talented Taylor Sheridan. A script that not only incorporates a strong sense of justice for the little guy courtesy of more than a handful of mentions about how the banks are taking people for a ride financially speaking, but also a few wonderful moments thrown into the mix such as a server at a diner forming a lovely bond with the stoic yet decent Toby only to then get fairly passionate when Marcus asks her to give up the 200 tip Toby gave as evidence since doing so will make paying her mortgage a lot more difficult. Along with that, we see that this slice of cinema’s script also manages to incorporate analysis about Native Americans and where they fit in to the modern world especially in moments where we see the brothers make their way to an Indian casino so they can launder their loot and also in Marcus’ seemingly non-stop and at times quite merciless teasing of his partner Alberto. In regards to the latter it should be said that the back and forths that we get to witness between Marcus and Alberto are a wonderful mix of both subtle comedy and pathos as we see that under the pointed comments Marcus makes there is a genuine brotherly affection to be found for his partner which gets a particularly emotional resolution by the end of the movie. Finally, we also see that this slice of cinema also has a wonderful atmosphere to it due in large part to the truly elegant and quite gorgeous cinematography and framework by Giles Nuttgens. Indeed from the vast exterior shots of seemingly infinite flat land drenched in sunlight and clouds to vibrant and well-lit interior shots, this slice of cinema is a true visual spectacle. At the same time, this slice of cinema also proves to be quite the memorial to a way of life courtesy of heartbreaking shots of country towns on the decay and fields with farm tools past their prime lying about and seemingly endless oil derricks in the fields where herds of cattle used to roam.

Now in terms of performances, I can honestly say that this slice of cinema is the lucky beneficiary of a trinity of wonderful performances. This starts with Chris Pine in the role of Toby and he is absolutely fantastic. Indeed Pine, with his vibrant blue eyes and his emotional yet glossy style had for a long time had trouble finding some potent and pathos-rooted parts that he fit as brilliantly as his take on the iconic character of Captain James T. Kirk. With this character however, I think it’s safe to say Pine was able to show that he was more than just a pretty face, but a legitimately talented actor. Indeed in the role of Toby, Pine may be portraying an attractive bad to the bone type with a few years on him, but Pine also is able to incorporate a healthy amount of pain and regret as well thus making for a performance that is just as much pathos as it is physicality. As the Yin to Pine’s Yang, we get a wonderful performance from Ben Foster. Indeed Foster, complete with Sons of Anarchy-style biker mustache and dagger-like stare that all but eggs you on to stare back at him, makes the character of Tanner worse than his brother in many respects. At the same time though this guy may be a sociopath and a cock-up of a thief who doesn’t believe he could ever go on the straight and narrow, but at least Foster knows he’s a cock-up and to some degree this does make the character a bit more human than he would be otherwise. This then brings us to the third cast member in this trinity of standout performances and this one is a real delight in every sense of the word. That would be screen icon Jeff Bridges, speaking to us in a manner that I wouldn’t be surprised makes you think his character constantly is chewing on tobacco or something to that effect, in the role of Marcus a getting up there in years member of the Texas Ranger who is by and large the most intelligent person in a given situation he finds himself part of and may be aware, but is also not going to show it off or flaunt it in any way. Indeed in many respects, the character of Marcus could best be seen as a mix between the brilliant yet laidback Columbo and the dogged determination of a cop like Sam Gerard from The Fugitive and it is an absolute joy to see him and his weary partner Alberto try to hunt the brothers down even while Marcus drives Alberto absolutely up the wall with a constant stream of belittling/teasing remarks. Suffice it to say that Bridges manages to completely change his whole personality as he adopts a very laidback Texas style that manages to make even the meanest things that come out of his mouth seem decent in nature. Yes he also portrays this character in the vein of someone who is very much deadpan with his wit, but Bridges still gives his dialogue in this that distinct sparkle that only an actor of Bridges’ caliber could bring to a role of this type.

All in all I think it can safely be said that after close to ten slices of cinema and a 14-year career in the land of movie magic that has at times been very all over the place, film helmer David Mackenzie has managed to give to movie goers a slice of cinema that is most assuredly his most commercially pleasing film to date to say nothing of his most complete and fulfilling as well. Indeed working off the momentum from a very highly regarded 2013 British entry in the prison drama subgenre of movie magic, Hell or High Water is a slice of cinema that also in many respects is his closest to a specific genre courtesy of being able to operate off a brilliant screenplay from Taylor Sheridan and some truly wonderful work from the cinematography department at capturing the desolate yet gorgeous landscapes of what are supposed to represent West Texas. However when you also throw in a top-flight cast that is subsequently spearheaded by a trinity of powerhouse performances courtesy of phenomenal screen talents Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster what you get is more than just a terrific piece of cinema, but one that makes for a genuinely great time to be had watching a slice of cinema period and one you most assuredly will wish to watch time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Hell or High Water “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.