If you’re lucky enough to see Hell or High Water without hearing too much about it, you really have no idea what you’re in for. 

It looks like it’s going to be a modern-day old west bank robbery story. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), pull a couple of old-fashioned stick-em-up broad daylight bank robberies in West Texas. Tanner is a loose cannon, an unpredictable ex-con who seems to experience palpable glee when he breaks a rule of any kind. Toby is more cautious, not quite a reluctant participant, but clearly acting against his better judgement.

We find out their mother has died recently and their motivation for robbing these 5 starsparticular banks starts to come into focus. It’s at this point that we start to realize how well written Hell or High Water is. The scheme the brothers are working on is more complicated than anything you’d find in an actual old-west bank robbery movie and more like something from a 1940s crime noir or an Elmore Leonard novel. And the deeper into the movie we go, the more complicated the scheme becomes.

But the writing is not all plot-driven. As true to life as the scenes with the brothers are, it’s when two Texas Rangers start investigating the bank robberies that the dialogue really takes off. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, the senior ranger, close to retirement, working the case with his sidekick, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). They have a constant banter, but has a bit of an edge to it. Hamilton never lets an opportunity to go by to show that he’s in charge, and that includes a few racist jokes here and there mocking Parker’s native american heritage. Parker goes along with the joking, though there are clear indications he doesn’t like it. There is a tense affection between them, and their relationship is realistic, which becomes important when the action picks up and they’re both in the thick of it.

Taylor Sheridan, best known as an actor from Sons of Anarchy, has not only written one of the best screenplays of the year in Hell or High Water, he did the same thing last year when he wrote Sicario. Now he’s written two movies scheduled to come out in 2017 and one of them, Wind River, will also be his directorial debut.

Director David Mackenzie is an Englishman with many directing credits, including the excellent Young Adam with Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton in 2003. You can tell early on in Hell or High Water that he really knows what he’s doing. Watch the camerawork in that first getaway scene – I think I know how he did it, but I don’t know how he made it look so good and so easy.

Jeff Bridges is playing the same type of gruff southern lawman we’ve seen him play in True Grit and R.I.P.D., but somehow it’s not more of the same. It’s not a caricature at all, and that’s hard to avoid when you’re playing two predictable types – not only an officer from the south, but one set to retire soon. Ben Foster is fanstastic as the maniac brother Tanner, and Chris Pine shows he’s a real actor. He’s not just Capt. Kirk and not just a pretty-boy leading man.

Hell or High Water is No Country for Old Men with a plot. And I loved No Country for Old Men. There was very little resolution at the end of that movie, with Tommy Lee Jones sitting alone, just thinking about life. But the last scene of Hell or High Water is one of the great movie endings. It’s somewhat open-ended but it brings the story to the only conclusion it could reach up to that point. It’s sort of scene movie fans should remember and quote for years to come. A showdown between two Texas gentlemen has never been more civilized.

 

Title Hell or High Water
Director David Mackenzie
Writer Taylor Sheridan
Runtime 102 min
Starring Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges
Production Film 44, OddLot Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
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