'Hell or High Water' Review

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

Hell or High Water is hardly the first movie about bank robbers that has far more scorn for the banks they are robbing, and for the bad economy they are profiting off of. It is also hardly the first movie with bank robbing brothers where one is sensible and one is a hot head, and it follows in an even longer tradition of having a lawman who is just days from retirement.

Yet as is the case with most movies, it takes the right screenplay and actors to make even the oldest concepts work one more time.

The bank robbing brothers in question here are Toby and Tanner Howard, who specifically rob each branch of the Texas Midlands Bank that is threatening to take their late mother's oil-rich ranch by the end of the week. Although Tanner is the career criminal, the divorced and formerly law-abiding Toby is the mastermind, with the end game of leaving the rich land to his two children. But the lawman on their trail is long time ranger Marcus Hamilton, on the verge of a forced retirement and partnered with Native American Alberto as they follow the trail of knocked over banks, in a spree that starts peacefully but inevitably can't stay that way.

Director David Mackenzie sets the tone immediately, in a panoramic opening shot that includes a graffitied statement about a lack of bailouts for soldiers and working people, a few run down homes and the soon-to-be robbed bank right across the street. From there, more than a few other signs about foreclosure, debt relief and houses for sale can be spotted in shots throughout the West Texas landscape, along with other snapshots of an area that time and the economy have left behind.

Hell or High Water tries to be a crime movie with an economic conscience, and not just in the expected jabs at robbed banks that have already robbed others for decades. This approach works in moments like a waitress trying to protect a large tip from Toby from being collected into evidence in order to make her mortgage, a plot point where even a Midlands Bank branch turns out to have felt the pinch of foreclosure, and a climactic speech about how being poor is passed down like a "sickness" throughout generations. There's even a speech where Alberto links the theft of Native American land to the theft of land from banks in modern times, which works until remembering that even banks haven't tried to commit ethnic cleansing yet.

These touches give Hell or High Water its serious teeth, yet that doesn't make it a full on preachy movie. In truth, the main element that keeps the film moving isn't the economic message or even the robberies, but the comedic zingers, asides and exchanges between not one but two oil-and-water partnerships on each side of the law.

On the one end is brothers Toby and Tanner, with obviously different styles in carrying out their crime spree amidst their combustible brotherly bonds. On the other is cowboy marshal Marcus and Indian/Mexican Alberto, in the kind of ethnic culture clash that pretty much writes itself and often does. Frankly, the more Marcus runs through a checklist of Indian and Mexican jokes, the easier it gets to mistake these scenes for a live action, somewhat tamer but almost as politically incorrect Sausage Party.

Nevertheless, Hell or High Water's greatest pleasures come from seeing these two central pairs of characters banter, bicker and get the job done on each side of the law. But even with Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham doing the bantering, the greater credit goes to writer Taylor Sheridan for crafting it.

Actor-turned-screenwriter Sheridan first broke out in this field last year for writing Sicario. Now in his second crime drama script set in Western and Southwestern lands, Sheridan again tries to balance banter, thrills and serious points about a major American crisis. However, he gets in a lot more jokes and jabs at the eccentrics in West Texas culture than he ever could in Sicario.

Sheridan keeps the one-liners, bonding/clashes between partners and comical Texas side characters coming almost throughout, making Hell or High Water one of the more quotable movies of the year if nothing else. With Sheridan's words carrying the way, all Mackenzie really has to do is point and shoot at the vast landscape in support, albeit without the extra flare of Sicario's Denis Villeneuve.

While the screenplay carries Hell or High Water through in terms of exchanges, characters, comic relief and even a few big statements, plot is sometimes another matter. Most of the actual robberies are packed into the first act, so the pace is fairly leisurely and may bore those looking for a more action-centric pace, at least if they aren't entertained by the dialogue. But by the time it gets to the last heist, there's little doubt in how certain things are going to turn out, with more tension by far in the climactic verbal confrontation than in the climactic robbery and its immediate aftermath.

The journey means more than the destination here, with Sheridan as the primary getaway driver while Bridges, Foster, Pine and Birmingham pull off the job for him. Still, Sheridan winds up giving the lions' share of his big scenes and lines to Bridges and Foster above all.

Pine is the biggest name of the group, at least in the blockbuster demographic, and also has Hell and High Water tailor made for him to prove he can do more than command the Enterprise. Even with that, he often mainly serves as the straight man to Foster, who takes the reigns of a squirrely, hot headed and more crime loving brother and runs with them in a Texas-sized way. Like Sheridan and Bridges, Foster is handed more than a few familiar elements and beats, but makes them too much fun to watch again to mind all that much.

For Bridges, this seems like the umpteenth movie in a row where he speaks like Rooster Cogburn or has some kind of gravelly accent, as he probably hasn't spoken with his real voice on screen since Tron Legacy at this rate. Considering all the ethnic jabs at his partner, however, he seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino more often. While Sheridan certainly runs the risk of Marcus relying too heavily on such one-liners, he's fortunate to have Bridges delivering them and to do a lot more as well.

After almost three straight months of disappointing or divisive blockbusters, having something like Hell or High Water come out at the end of it is already a relief to many critics. Perhaps that helps color perceptions a little bit, since the movie otherwise falls a bit short of four/five star status and may not move fast enough for all general audiences.

But as a vehicle to further Sheridan along as one of our rising screenwriters, and as an excuse to watch Bridges and Birmingham as well as Foster and Pine deliver his zingers, banter and personality clashes for over 90 minutes, Hell or High Water pulls off a more than respectable haul.

While it rates an official 7 on the TMN.com scale, it still scrounges up enough change to drive away with a 7.5.