‘Hell or High Water,” a modern-day twist on the Robin Hood approach to economic parody, rides superb writing, Oscar-caliber performances and a serious social message to such grandeur as to make it one of the best pictures of 2016. Although the theme could have been preachy, it manages to make a monumental statement with quiet reserve and compassion.
Toby has lived an honest life that’s been torn apart by economic hardship. He no longer is trying to live the American dream, but instead is trying to escape the American nightmare. Tanner has struggled through a troubled life that has often taken him outside the lines of the law.
The brothers come together in a last-ditch plan to save their home from foreclosure. They decide to rob small branches of the bank that holds their mortgage. The stolen money will be used to pay off their debt.
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Their plan works in the beginning. But the bad luck that has stuck to the pair like Texas dust in a windstorm puts them in the crosshairs of the Texas Rangers. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the verge of retirement, and bringing in these bandits would be a nice accent mark on his career.
Director David Mackenzie faced the challenge of turning antiheroes beautifully designed by writer Taylor Sheridan into characters who are three-dimensional enough to make them liked by the audience, despite the natural inclination to see them only as common thieves.
He does this by slowly molding each of the brothers into their different roles. Instead of just letting them develop into criminals, Mackenzie keeps pulling the focus back to how the men are built to be metaphors for anyone who is facing desperate times. These often fall into two camps: those who do bad for a good reason and those who do bad for the sake of doing bad.
It helps that he gets standout performances from all three of his lead actors. This is by far the best acting performance in Pine’s career. He’s mostly cast as a roguish hero and such roles don’t come along too often. Pine was smart enough to see the potential in the part and embrace it with deep passion.
The film reunites Pine and Foster, who starred in “The Finest Hours.” Pine got to shine in that movie about the Coast Guard, but Foster was reduced to just grunting replies.
Mackenzie doesn’t waste Foster, and instead gives him the leeway to make Tanner a complicated character. Foster’s greatest strength is being able to play a character who can dance along the sharp edge between sanity and insanity. He does that sharply here, going from devoted brother to out-of-control fugitive.
This all gets tied together by Bridges, who keeps his Texas Ranger character from being just another authority figure and gives him depth and a soul. This is a transformative performance by Bridges.
All of this plays out against the harsh backdrop of a waterless Texas background. From the waves of heat rolling across the plains to characters who seem to be less actor and more local citizens who have wandered in front of the camera, the director has created a world that feels infinitely deep.
All of this comes together to make “Hell or High Water” a powerful story about hope and despair, success and failure, desperation and determination. And yet Mackenzie never forces any of the sides but just presents the story to the viewer to consume, debate and then decide.
The result is a film that should not be overlooked by Academy Award voters.
Hell or High Water
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon
Director: David Mackenzie
Rating: R (violence, language, brief sexuality)