Because you asked little brother
Scottish director David Mackenzie has been on my radar ever since 2013’s vastly under-seen prison drama Starred Up starring Jack O’Connell, who plays a troubled youth trying to survive in the same British penitentiary that his father is housed in. Which is why it came as a surprise to many when his next project was announced to be a tale of two American brothers who go on a bank robbing spree set against the backdrop of the West Texas desert. As unconventional as a project for someone like Mackenzie to helm, he surely shows no signs of struggle or hesitation. Make no mistake, Hell or High Water is one of the best films of 2016 and it has a lot to do with Mackenzie’s direction.
For example, the film opens with a bravura set piece outside of a small bank just before it’s set to open for business. We see a rusted blue muscle car pull into the parking lot of the bank, unsure of who’s riding inside. The car is timed perfectly to the arrival of the teller, who we see take a quick smoke break on the side of the bank before she reaches for her keys to open the door. All this while the camera is rotating 360 degrees. Not only does this make a seemingly routine shot feel more dynamic than it is, it also makes the audience feel like something ominous is lurking just out of sight of the frame, something like say…a bank robbery waiting to happen. This is about as spoiler-y as my review will get because I don’t want to spend too much time on the plot here. Frankly it isn’t as important as the performances and atmosphere crafted by the filmmakers. What you need to know in terms of narrative is minimal: Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers who recently lost their mother to illness and are financially struggling to save their family ranch from foreclosure by the bank. Toby hatches a plan to rob several branches from said bank in quick succession so that they can raise the money to keep what little they have left to their name. Fortunately, Hell or High Water is absolutely character driven as opposed to action-heavy, which is atypical of most heist films. The relationship between the two brothers is what matters here, and Mackenzie wisely places it front and center.
Attention has to be given to the other side of the law as well. As with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s scripts (see last year’s wonderful Sicario) there are multiple protagonists and story arcs to follow. The warm and loving embrace of the Howard Brothers is contrasted with the sarcastic and scathing banter of the two Rangers on their tail, played by Bridges and Birmingham. Their chemistry is substantial and their dialogue witty, particularly Marcus’ politically incorrect insults about Alberto’s mixed Mexican/Native American heritage which easily provide the biggest laughs of the whole show. Now there are definitely similarities between Bridges’ almost-retired, prickly scowl and Tommy Lee Jones’s “Sheriff Bell” in 2007’s No Country For Old Men, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing however it does feel like the one aspect of the story that can be accused of derivation. But what sets Hell or High Water apart from its criminal counterparts is the attention paid to both duos. The film is not imprudent to label everyone as either “good” or “bad” guys. Yes the brothers are on a crime spree but their intentions are pure. Toby even makes it a point to his hot-headed brother not to steal from the customers in the branch, only robbing from the bank itself. The side of the law enforcement is also sympathetic. We get to know these two Rangers as people and see their relationship grow stronger on the hunt.
As mentioned, the motivations for their crimes are clear but the moral clarity is not. Toby is otherwise a decent man trying to do right by his estranged family. He gets no joy out of threatening hard working folk like himself. Tanner on the other hand is a different story. Fresh out of jail, he’s accustomed to the life of crime his little brother has dragged him into. Although to even say “dragged” is a bit of a misnomer. Tanner appears to be in his comfort zone when shaking down bank tellers or popping off aimless rounds. He even takes the initiative and knocks over an unplanned bank while the two are having lunch. But what we do know of his actions is that he’s loyal to his brother, at any cost.
Like the late Roger Ebert elegantly stated – It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. Hell or High Water is unremarkable in what it is about but special in how it is about it. There is poetry in the way the shots are framed, the way the beautiful score swells up and dissolves into the background again, and in the performances crafted. Ben Foster is always at the top of any “underrated actors” list but Pine and Bridges are especially good here. The main draw of the film is what I mentioned earlier at the top about atmosphere. David Mackenzie has respect for his audience, which enables him to patiently tell a typically cliche story from all sorts of unique and interesting angles. Hell or High Water is a smart and crowd-pleasing film, a rare feat for a summer movie season not particularly filled with either.