Five stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and fleeting sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.16
Most films are lucky if they successfully deliver compelling drama or perceptive social commentary. Very few do both at the same time.
This is one of the rare ones.
|After a bank robbery doesn't go quite according to plan, Toby (Chris Pine, left) and his|
brother Tanner (Ben Foster) contemplate their next move. The options are limited, and
time is running out...
Hell or High Water is the finest contemporary drama thus far in a year that has produced few American films of substance. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) deliver a taut crime thriller that’s also a shattering indictment of contemporary economic malaise, and the lingering havoc wrought by the 2007-8 subprime mortgage crisis.
The film is beautifully mounted and superbly acted by all four leads. Sheridan is equally adept at absorbing narrative and engaging character dynamics, along with having a great ear for the gently snarky banter that often bonds men who seem distant and crusty on the surface, but in fact deeply respect each other.
The resulting atmosphere is fascinating for its complexity: We don’t often encounter films that manage to be quite funny at times, while simultaneously enveloping us in an uneasy atmosphere of impending disaster. Grim portent hovers over these characters, like an ink-black thunderstorm visible on the horizon, and approaching inexorably.
In many ways, this film looks, sounds and feels like the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men; it certainly paints a similarly bleak portrait of the depressed regions of modern-day Texas. But that 2007 thriller depended (to a degree) on grotesques, in order to advance its story; you’ll find no monsters here, along the lines of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh.
No, the protagonists in Hell or High Water are painfully familiar, and that’s what makes this saga so heartbreaking: We know these guys. They’re the ones who live in the dilapidated house down the street, with the unkempt yard and dead vehicle(s). They hang around too much because employment has been spotty, and they’re always scrambling to remain one bank payment ahead of foreclosure.
Sheridan sets his story in West Texas, where the distinction between honest men and reluctant outlaws has blurred beyond recognition. We meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), guns drawn and faces concealed by masks, as they rob a tiny branch of the Midland Bank, terrorizing the two lone employees in the process. The boys are careful, taking only loose, small-denomination bills and avoiding the bundled larger bills with the explosive dye packs.
They roar away in a battered sedan, Tanner exhilarated by the adrenaline rush, the quieter Toby chastened by what they’ve just done. Their getaway takes them past foreclosed homes, shuttered businesses and countless billboards advertising payday loans; cinematographer Giles Nuttgens gives these surroundings the stark, washed-out look of cheap paint peeled away by too many seasons of blazing hot sunlight.
Then, later that same morning, they do it again ... at another small-town branch of the Midland Bank.