Movie Review: Hell or High Water


Two brothers are pursued by a ranger as they cross West Texas robbing banks.


David Mackenzie, 2016

Growing up in a poor Texas town, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) find themselves stuck in a cycle of poverty. The usually more sensible Toby ultimately talks jailbird Tanner into aiding him in a series of robberies of Texas Midlands Bank branches across Texas. As the brothers bond over the robberies and the recent death of their mother, Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) learns of their crimes and starts tracking them across the state. His Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is forced to put up with Marcus’s frequent racist jokes and occasionally abrasive personality thanks to Marcus’s talent in working out the criminal mind. As the rangers close in, the brothers’ plan is threatened by forces both external and internal, particularly Tanner’s impulsiveness.


There’s plenty to praise about Hell or High Water. It’s shot beautifully, to start with. The film’s luscious visuals only serve to highlight the harsh times that these towns have fallen upon. The film is not subtle about highlighting the economic issues plaguing towns like the one Toby and Tanner grew up in. They frequently drive past empty houses and debt forgiveness signs as their own desperation becomes clear. There’s a realism to the dialogue and the naturalistic performances that drives this point home. Easily the highlight of the film is the relationship between Toby and Tanner. Ben Foster, who has been the best part of a series of terrible films over the course of his career (see: X-Men: The Last Stand, 30 Days of Night, Warcraft) finally gets a role to sink his teeth into here, even if it does fall into a similar category of trigger-happy psycho as many of his better roles. He has an easy chemistry with Chris Pine, who leaves behind his own more polished style for something grungier here. Jeff Bridges is…well, he’s Jeff Bridges, so you pretty much know what you’re in for there (seriously, I had no idea what the character’s name was for the entire course of the film), but Gil Birmingham is stoically wonderful as his long-suffering partner. They hit the racist jokes pretty hard, but they’re always framed within the context of Alberto’s frustrated reactions. There’s also a really interesting scene where Alberto talks about the history of the land they’re sitting on that is one of the more powerful pieces of clear, audible dialogue in the film.

The trouble with this film is that it’s so goddamn slow. It starts and ends strong, but during a significant portion of the middle of the film, nothing happens. Nothing. I spent at least an hour waiting for something important to happen. So many opportunities for interesting character development – especially for Toby – float right on by as the movie seems to be more interested in watching Tanner act out for the tenth time or yet another mumbled racist line from Jeff Bridges. A movie about bank robbers and the cop on their tail should be a lot more exciting than this movie manages to be. It might not be so jarring if the film started slow and then ramped up the tension and excitement slowly, but instead it throws us in the middle of an exciting robbery, then gives us another one shortly after, and then…nothing. For ages. There’s plenty of mumbled conversations that give us not much information, interspersed with a few that work – Toby talking to his teenage son is a particularly good scene. The film really ends with a bang, though, as the brothers’ final robbery is besieged by problems and its outcome becomes increasingly murky. The film likes to subvert expectations, and this approach is occasionally successful, but ultimately leaves the film feeling unfulfilled. Still, it’s a solid watch with some pithy observations.

Hell or High Water on IMDb

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