Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie
Release Year:
Taylor Sheridan
Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
Screening Date:
  • 10 Oct 2017
  • Categories:
    Crime, Drama, Thriller

    A modern-day, Western morality tale about two brothers who resort to a desperate scheme to raid banks to stop the foreclosure of the family ranch in Texas. Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges.

    Film Notes

    “Hell or High Water” is a thrillingly good movie — a crackerjack drama of crime, fear, and brotherly love set in a sun-roasted, deceptively sleepy West Texas that feels completely exotic for being so authentic. The film opens, as so many underworld sagas have, with a bank robbery: At a Texas Midlands branch in the middle of a flyspeck town, two guys in ski masks wave their guns around and grab the cash from behind the teller windows.

    One of them, it’s clear, is a wild boy who’s enjoying the robbery a little too much. As they race off in their getaway car, a sporty scuzz-mobile that seems to be advertising the fact that they’re crooks, we think we’re watching a pop genre movie about violent losers who are too reckless for their own good. But “Hell or High Water” settles into something quite different. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers, and in their minds they have damn good reason to be doing what they’re doing.

    They’re low-rent bandits, but they’re also richly drawn human characters, and every twist and turn of their dive beyond the law is rooted in the real world. “Hell or High Water” merges the excitement of a crime-spree noir with a haunting undertow of family history and destiny. Directed by David Mackenzie, from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote “Sicario”), it’s a gripping independent production that, with its fusion of offbeat star power and audacious storytelling, has the potential to be a mainstream hit, and possibly an awards contender. Chris Pine with his moody sleek glamour and bright blue bedroom eyes, has struggled to find serious dramatic roles that fit him as snugly as Captain Kirk, and this one is undoubtedly his breakthrough.

    As Toby, who’s divorced with two kids he hasn’t seen for a year, Pine is playing a sexy bad boy with some mileage on him, and he’s quietly mesmerizing. Toby knows how to spring into action, but his downbeat look expresses the pain of every mistake he’s ever made. Ben Foster, wearing a biker ‘stache and a spooked stare that dares you to stare back, makes Tanner an even badder boy, a thief who has spent years in prison and doesn’t have the patience — or faith — to go straight. He’s a sociopathic screwup who knows he’s a screwup (which sort of redeems him). As it turns out, the robberies are all Toby’s idea, and he has planned out their logistics with great cunning. The two will hit a series of Texas Midland branches, always early in the morning, restricting themselves to unmarked bills lifted from the register.

    More clever: They’ve amassed a handful of cars, and after each robbery they drive the getaway vehicle into a pit already dug in the back of the family ranch, and bury it. (They clean the cash at a casino.) The reason Toby has thought this all out with such awesome ingenuity is that he’s desperately motivated. The local bank — yes, Texas Midlands — is about to foreclose on that ranch, and to pay off the debt and save the property, the brothers need money they don’t have. The film’s implication is that in the new, corporate-driven, triumph-of-finance-culture America, the bank just wants to gobble up property. It’s not there to help — it’s there to steal, albeit legally. And in this case, there’s a lot to take: Toby has found oil on the land. To hold onto it is his way of protecting the future of the children he hasn’t been there for. It’s no trick for a movie to win us over to the side of robbers, or even killers. But in “Hell or High Water,” there’s a powerful ambiguity at work in our connection to the brothers’ thievery. The two grew up in poverty, and Toby’s justification for becoming a violent criminal is that he needs to go that far to alter the financial karma of his family. He and Tanner come off as amoral and honorable at the same time, and the film weighs their actions against a spectre of vanishing prosperity. With jobs, and futures, disappearing, are these two stealing other people’s money? Or are they just trying to hold on to what’s theirs? Maybe both. “Hell or High Water” has an understanding of what drives ordinary people to commit crime that links it to the lyrical hunger and despair of Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” To heighten the issue, and also to hot-wire the story for suspense, there’s a third major character, and he’s a real crowd-pleaser. Jeff Bridges, talking in a deep-voiced, slow-cooked drawl that makes him sound like he does nothing but chew tobacco leaves, shows up as Marcus, an aging Texas Ranger who’s the smartest guy in any room he’s in, and knows it, but will never let you see it. Bridges, looking like an old catfish, changes his entire aspect, slowing himself way down (at times, he suggests a more wry Kris Kristofferson), adopting the kind of sleepy Texas manners that make even the nastiest insults come off as polite. He’s deadpan, yet he gives every line a twinkle. Marcus is the film’s Columbo/Javert character, the sort of detective who succeeds because he knows how to think just like the criminals he’s chasing. When Tanner upsets the brothers’ careful planning by staging an impromptu heist of his own, Marcus figures all that out, and there’s a terrific, funny scene in which he and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) — who’s on the receiving end of most of those insults — sit at a sidewalk bar across from a Midlands branch, just waiting for the robbers to show up. Marcus, we’re told, is three weeks away from retirement, and Bridges makes you see why he’s dreading it: He invests Marcus’ understanding of crime with a deep cynical joy. Mackenzie, the Glasgow-based director of “Starred Up,” takes to the grittiness and sprawl of West Texas as if born to it, and Sheridan’s script is full of lines that snap (“Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house!” says Marcus, spying a bank manager he wants to question). It also has a masterly design. Marcus, with some justification, thinks of himself as a cowboy, a lawman hooked to an ancient code, but “Hell or High Water” serves up a vision of West Texas in which everyone believes they’re a cowboy. Toby and Tanner swagger like John Wayne’s punk grandsons, lunging for a freedom that civilization, in their eyes, wants to snuff. And every bystander around them lusts for that same freedom; it’s all about the guns they’re carrying. Each of them is looking to grab one of those guns in order to leap to someone’s rescue (an entire state of amateur deputies!), and the film shows us what the weapons mean — that they’re signifiers of power, self, dignity. “Hell or High Water” is the rare movie that invites even liberals to grasp the spirit of America gun culture from the inside out. Toby and Tanner are on a collision course – with the law, with each other — but “Hell or High Water” doesn’t go where you expect. Pine and Foster genuinely convince you they’re brothers, with a punchy affectionate conflicted bond that reaches all the way back. At times, they could be a cracker-barrel version of the love-hate siblings portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” “Hell or High Water” channels the uncut adrenaline of crime, but it’s also a moral drama that takes the measure of each destabilizing action it shows us. The movie is on the right side of things, even when it barely knows where that is.
    Owen Gleiberman, Variety, MAY 16, 2016
    Last year in the Cannes competition, actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan delivered us a cracking script for the Tex-Mex drug-lord drama Sicario. Now he repeats the trick with this rangy, violent, and cynical western set in Texas, showing in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. The director is David Mackenzie, the British film-maker whose last film was the much-admired prison drama Starred Up. This continues his winning streak. Hell or High Water is a heist picture with a satirical edge that reminded me of Brecht’s dictum about robbing a bank being a waste of time compared to owning one; it’s also a gloomy reverie about the hostile Texan plain, comparable to the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, or Blood Simple. There’s also a vague sense memory of the 1960s western Lonely Are the Brave, with Kirk Douglas’s cowboy on the run. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are two brothers, Toby and Tanner: one smart and one stupid, but both equally engaged in the high-risk business of robbing banks – early in the morning, taking only small-denomination untraceable bills, making it hardly worthwhile for the bank to press charges. Weirdly, they also stick to branches of one particular bank. Stranger still is that Toby could now theoretically be a rich man, having been the sole beneficiary of his late mother’s will, getting the property on which oil has been discovered but which he has actually made over in trust for his children, after his divorce, in financial conditions which at first glance make his new bank-robbing career even more baffling. Tanner is a career criminal whom his mother hated, so the bank heists could be Toby’s way of helping him out. Meanwhile, Marcus – amusingly played by Jeff Bridges – is the Texas ranger on the boys’ trail, wearing the regulation plain shirt, white Stetson and sunglasses. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is a Native American in the same getup with whom Marcus does not scruple to make bad-taste jokes about ethnicity. Marcus is on the verge of a retirement that he doesn’t want, and takes a gloomy and almost elegiac pleasure in all the details of this last case; he and Alberto have many a scene in which they enter smalltown restaurants and order coffee with elaborate old-school courtesy from waitresses who are usually charmed, except for one who grumpily insists they have steak because that’s what everyone has, and still angrily remembers some out-of-towner in 1987 who tried to order “trout”. The situation unwinds with a kind of brutal, desperate entropy as Tanner, who has never been under any illusions about how activities like his pan out in the end, tacitly accepts his own end. And it creates a new, interestingly pointed confrontation between Marcus and Toby. Mackenzie’s direction and Giles Nuttgens’s cinematography create a kind of horizontal vertigo in the dizzying sweep of the landscape and there is a great soundtrack with original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s an action-thriller with punch; Bridges gives the characterisation ballast and heft and Pine and Foster bring a new, grizzled maturity to their performances.
    Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, May 16 2016


    What you thought about Hell or High Water

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    17 (26%) 25 (38%) 13 (20%) 8 (12%) 2 (3%)
    Total Number of Responses: 65
    Film Score (0-5): 3.72

    Collated Response Comments

    112 attended and of the 65 responses 7 came via e mail. A hit rate of 58%. 30 (46%) commented on the poor quality of the dialogue sound track. An unacceptably high rate. The topic was raised at a committee meeting last week after an investigation had taken place. Subsequent viewing of the film on a home player identified there was nothing wrong with the sound track and that it was perfectly audible. We have taken the matter up with the Borough hall management and have concluded there is an issue with the way in which we are projecting the “Surround Sound”. Because so many of you also commented that the use of subtitles would have assisted, we will examine that on a case by case basis in the future when showing American films with regional accents. There will be a few more copies of the film available in the library for those of you who wish to view the film again at home. So even if your overall viewing pleasure was marred by the sound you still found many good things to say. “What a superb film. A lovely blend of modern social commentary and the traditions of the western, true to both but with a tough core and subtle moral balance. As with ‘Aquarius’ the real baddies are the money men. Chris Pine downplays his star wattage in the style of Paul Newman in ‘Hud', looking like a young Peter O’Toole I thought. Jeff Bridges bringing all his experience to bear in a film reminiscent of ‘The last Picture Show’, ‘Bad Company' and ‘Thunderbolt & Lightfoot’ from his considerable back catalogue. An easy watch (though tricky listen - the sound very muddy) and the brothers easy to root for until the Alberto’s shocking death and the doomed Tanner’s unavoidable self-sacrifice. It looks and feels utterly believable, all the bit part players ring true and another in a growing catalogue of great, understated soundtracks from Cave and Ellis (where does he find the time?)” A new member wrote “Memorable and enjoyable, especially for the strong sense of place and the underplayed subversiveness. Probably even better if I could have understood the words. Was the rattlesnake there to give the critics something to hang on to?”. I also liked the following summaries. “Embraced the genre stereotypes and subverted them. The landscape was an actor too”. “Texas rangers; cowboys; Indians; feisty waitress; casual sexism, not so casual racism, TV preacher – bingo! A gem!”. “Atmosphere, music and the inimitable Jeff Bridges make an unremarkable cops and robbers film into something highly enjoyable”. “Basic story was Ok but terrible dialogue – such a pity. Best bit was the wonderful scene in the café with the question “What don’t you want?” Liked the music too”. “Margaret Bowman for an Oscar (T bone waitress)”. “A good performance by Jeff Bridges, lovely humour between him and his sidekick. Almost unintelligible between the two brothers really impeded my enjoyment of the film”. “Surprising that it didn’t win any awards – surely best Foreign Language Film”. “Good music – interesting story – bad guy comes good. Need subtitles (and I’m American). Sex not as good as last week”. A member who rated the film Average wrote “I’ve written it many times –American films need subtitles! For once let’s cheer for the baddy who got away with it- in a noble cause. Would have warranted a Good if understandable”. All your other comments are on the website. “I might be hard of hearing but I found the dialogue very difficult to hear but I could follow the story. Why not run it with subtitles like any other foreign film”. “The story manipulated our sympathies. Very good”. “Nicely done – echoes of Badlands + Fargo. Difficult to understand at first but I got tuned in”. “Would have been better to have left the subtitles in”. “Loved it – subtitles essential though”. “This was my second viewing and it didn’t disappoint. Superbly atmospheric. Slow, but it needed to be. Great acting and suspense. A very cleverly made film”. “Wouldn’t have minded subtitles – loved it second time around”. “Brilliantly bleak. Made up the dialogue in my head”. “Really loved the film. The male relationships were very well drawn”. “Excellent soundtrack. Chris pine was very charismatic. Good ending”. “Sound track not needed to follow the format of a cowboy. Great visuals also”. “An enjoyable film with good music score by nick Cave, only marred by the incomprehensibility of the dialogue! Often”. “Thoroughly enjoyed it and particularly the background music”. “Saw this film on a BA long haul flight so great to see it on the big screen. Great performances by Chris Pine & Jeff Bridges”. “A little predicable story – excellent photography plus good music. Could not understand the dialogue”. “Would have been excellent if the diction had been clearer”. “Enjoyed the film but did have trouble understanding much of the dialogue”. “Over exposed filming/lighting? Slightly unbelievable but a good soundtrack”. “Difficult to understand at the beginning”. “If only one could hear what the actors say!! Go back to the good old days”. “It was good – if a little predictable. Maybe we could have done with subtitles. I suspect we missed some of the humour”. “Fantastic photography. Really enjoyed it but the sound quality was very bad”. “Really enjoyable. Pity about the sound but nearly had my “ear in” by the end. Wasn’t he lucky”. “Very thought provoking despite the poor sound. Great photography and scene composition”. “Gripping film with good acting. Suspense kept up till the very end of the film”. “Needed subtitles! Good music – good scenery – good length”. “I am sorry but subtitles were essential”. “Like a foreign film, you could hardly understand the dialogue, but the characters are foreign too “A classy execution but of a fairly predictable hoary old tale – not helped by poor sound”. “I am sure it was good and well played with great photography but I couldn’t hear the words!”. “Too loud and could not understand a word. Poor choice. Not up to standard. I hope future films are better”. “I suspect this was a good film bit with 85% of the dialogue inaudible, a tragic waste of time. GFS should really just show films with audible dialogue, even if it means showing a standby at the last minute. Great photography though”. “Enjoyable & entertaining with wonderful scenery and soundtrack. A storyline well portrayed by the 3 main characters but sadly some of the nuances were missed due to the muffled sound”. “An engrossing storyline well-acted and atmospherically filmed, with a good soundtrack”. “Despite the obvious spoken word sound quality issues it held me gripped throughout”. “Works on a number of levels, exploring a range of themes from universal ones of family ties to contemporary debates around capitalism. Great acting all round. Excellent script, although only understood about 50% due to sound quality, so would like to see again!” “Thank you for an excellent choice of film last evening. I was very appreciative of all the information regarding parking issues, the background print outs and provision of drinks :all time and effort that goes into that .. How very helpful! However I was concerned about the quality of the audio. I only understood 10% of the dialogue and thought it was a result of my hearing deterioration. Unexpectedly I discovered that when I was watching a clip of the film on a review website I was able, with only the integrated speaker of my laptop, to discern every word. So I conclude it must have been the sound system settings (I was conscious of a very bassy feel to it). I appreciate all the work and checks that go into the presentation of the well-chosen films but thought, for my future enjoyment and that of others, that I should bring this to your attention”.

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