Hell or High Water (2016)

brooke Hell or High Water is a wild ride.

casey It’s the kind of movie that deserves to be a cable TV classic ala Shawshank Redemption.  Are cable TV classics still a thing?

brooke If not, it can just be a streaming classic. *hint, hint Netflix*

casey Let’s recap: Hell or High Water begins with brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on a series of bank robberies across West Texas. We learn that the straightlaced Toby has recruited Tanner, who’s just a year out of prison, in a scheme to steal from the regional bank that’s about to foreclose on their family ranch, which Toby hopes to preserve for his ex wife and kids. Meanwhile, their spree attract the attention of crusty Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a mismatched pair in their own right who set out to locate and capture the robbers. What ensues is a caper that deals with economic themes that seem particularly germane at the present moment, and also takes a few darker turns that give it more weight than many other thriller/westerns.

brooke Hell or High Water does a great job of addressing its economic themes without feeling as didactic as something like The Big Short. It doesn’t try to spend time explaining the economics to you, but provides enough background that it’s easy enough for the average Joe to follow.

casey It definitely does not hide its political sensibilities. Besides the story about brothers robbing a predatory bank, director David Mackenzie frequently uses establishing shots of payday loan billboards and desolate oil towns, which sets a tone where Toby’s plan seems understandable, if not entirely sensible. I liked Toby and Tanner’s relationship and its mixture of hopefulness and fatalism: at one point Toby says to his brother, “You talk like we ain’t going to get away with this,” and Tanner responds, “I never met nobody got away with anything, ever.” I also enjoyed the Bridge’s performance as the eccentric but dogged Hamilton, who hopes to crack this final case almost as a distraction from his impending retirement.

brooke There’s a sense with Toby that he’s not in it for fun or even just the money, but as a matter of duty. Tanner, on the other hand, enjoys the thrill of it, and it’s interesting to watch the two interact. Their differences are stark but they feel like real brothers.
Hamilton is reminiscent of Bridge’s role in True Grit but I liked this character much better, although I can’t really pin down why. As he travels with Parker, his half-Native American, half-Mexican partner, he drops insults (he’s definitely not PC, not that I expected a Texas Ranger to be…) and rambles about nothing, but there’s a scene in climax where he completely transforms from a gruff and silly old man to a well-trained Ranger in a way that still makes perfect sense for the character.

casey In general I think Hell or High Water is fantastic. It’s tightly paced, often funny, and knows when to slow down and let the narrative breathe. The film’s more violent moments don’t have the same gut punch abruptness of the best Coen brothers movies, but the fact that it’s in the same ballpark as something like No Country for Old Men speaks to its quality.

brooke I’m mostly confused at how the movie snuck by without my noticing. We didn’t see it until it hit Redbox, and even then I only heard about it when the Golden Globe nominations were released.

casey I hope Hell or High Water has a long second life in some form or another, because it’s the kind of accessible, mid-budget thriller that does something different than the usual superhero stuff, and it’s got a lot more to offer than the usual R-rated thriller.


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