Movie Review – Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie strands us in quiet Texas and shows us why the fight between good and bad is never black and white.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Hell or High Water is a rare film; a full-blooded, thrilling heist that doubles as a tragedy and contains characters that are greater than the sum of their parts. It has two bank-robbing brothers – but they are not merely criminals – and a dogged Texas ranger who is not merely a crime fighter. They do what they do because to them, they have no other choice. They are victims of demented circumstance.

We meet Tanner and Toby Howard. Tanner (Ben Foster) is a loose cannon, recently paroled and trigger-happy. Toby (Chris Pine) has two sons and not a lot of room for recklessness. He is a desperate man who does bad things, but he dreams of a better life for his family and would be damned if his children were to grow up in poverty.

On the other side is Ranger Marcus, played by Jeff Bridges as a scruffy old dog on the verge of retirement. He has no patience for crime and quickly sees through the veil the brothers have so hastily set up. Experience has prepared him for this; he deciphers their motives and personalities as if on autopilot and uses the robberies as a surrogate for his last great stand against civil corruption. If he’s going to retire, he’s going to do it with two men behind bars, or six feet in the ground. He doesn’t really care which.

This doesn’t make Marcus an evil man, or even a heartless man, because he is carrying out the only logical solution to a puzzle that has lasted his entire life. He and every other character in Hell or High Water respond to crime with voices that stem from personal need. Even the waitress (Katy Mixon), who could possibly rat Toby out to the cops, refuses to cooperate, not because she is false, or that she wants to harbour Toby, but because she’s thinking of the necessity of protecting her family. We relate to decisions like this.

Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny familiarity with the dusty, barren Texan landscape. He must’ve lived there for some time. His film looks and feels just right. The towns are deceptively sleepy. The people move in secret, almost afraid to catch a glimpse of each other. Sometimes we strain to understand what our characters are saying and then realise it’s all swept up in the dust cloud of the plot anyway. What they say is indeed important, but why they say it carries more weight, and in the hands of Bridges, Pine and Foster, the dialogue rings true.

I’ve seen my fair share of heist movies. Some have been better than others. Hell or High Water is one of the best, because its perpetrators, in their complete desperation, execute a plan of immense daring and intelligence. We almost want them to pull it off. Had they committed the perfect crime and gotten away unchecked, we might have admired their skill but forsaken them as human beings. Tanner and Toby are fully aware they’ve landed on the wrong side of the law, and that’s where their tragedy begins. What a wonderful film.

Hell or High Water is available in Australian cinemas from October 27

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment

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