Directed by David Mackenzie. Starring Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Katy Mixon.
THE PLOT: Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) have a plan to hold up several branches of The Texas Midwest Bank. After they successfully hold up two branches, and bury the getaway cars on their family ranch, Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is on the case, chasing them down before they can hit another branch. Although the brothers’ plan is desperate and rather foolhardy, they are determined to save the family ranch, which is due to be foreclosed on in just a few days time.
THE VERDICT: Director David Mackenzie is having a great run of films at the moment, and ‘Hell or High Water’ is such a change of style, pace and direction after ‘Starred Up’, and it is a refreshing change to see an English director successfully take on a guns blazing tale set in the American South.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster lead the cast as Toby and Tanner, the brothers who are holding up banks. Although they are not terribly violent – just enough to get their point across – at the start of the film, audience sympathy is quickly with the duo, as they are charming in their Southern ways, and it is clear that they are robbing banks for a good reason, even if it is not immediately clear what that reason is. Chris Pine makes Toby the quieter, more thoughtful of the two; hurt by a failed marriage and a strained relationship with his children. Ben Foster obviously has fun with the more boisterous and volatile Tanner, and brings enthusiasm and energy to the role.
Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Walker Marcus, who takes it upon himself to catch these two thieves in the act. Bridges makes this role his own, making Marcus tenacious and incredibly funny, as he consistently pokes fun at his partner’s Native American heritage. Marcus is being forced to retire in a matter of weeks, and this gives Bridges a tenacity to play with, and something to fight for in the film. Gil Birmingham plays said partner, Alberto, who takes Marcus’ teasing well; knowing his partner will miss him when he no longer has someone to mock. The relationship between these two partners echoes the one of the brothers they are chasing, which gives the film a rounded, small and personal feel, while giving the audience reason to root for both sides in this conflict.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan most recently brought us the incredibly tense ‘Sicario’, and once again takes a slice of crime and puts it on the big screen in ‘Hell or High Water’. The characters are well drawn, the dialogue strong and the world of the film feels as though it was carefully researched and drawn. The film also makes an interesting comment about the recession and the history of America, drawing parallels between the land taken from the Native Americans in the past with the current wave of foreclosure and debts that is sweeping the country.
On paper, David Mackenzie feels like the exact wrong choice for the role as director, but it is he who makes ‘Hell or High Water’ work as well as it does. A film that plays with genre, cliché and expectation, ‘Hell or High Water’ is familiar in many ways, but it is incredibly well paced, filled with heart and thieves on a noble quest, while also being a whole lot of fun with action, laughs and characters to root for. There are a couple of choices made by characters that make little sense, but on the whole ‘Hell or High Water’ is strong, fun and engaging. Having Nick Cave and Warren Ellis do the score for the film lends it a weird and wonderful feel, and feels integrated and evocative.
In all, ‘Hell or High Water’ – despite what you think of the title – is an old fashioned cops and robbers film, set in the deep South during a depression. The film is both utterly contemporary and a call back to the great Cowboy movies of the past; no mean feat. The performances are strong, and the script smart. Even though a couple of inexplicable choices jar throughout the film, ‘Hell or High Water’ is the tightly paced, character driven nostalgic Cowboy movie we didn’t know we wanted, but definitely needed.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Cannes Review - Hell or High Water
Review by Brogen Hayes
5.0Smart and strong
  • filmbuff2011

    British director David Mackenzie is a bit like his peer Michael Winterbottom – he’s a hard man to pin down. He’s got an eclectic catalogue of films with no unifying theme – other than the need to tell a good story, no matter what the genre, environment or setting. Now he’s returned to America for the first time since Spread for possibly his best film yet – Hell Or High Water.

    In the dusty backwaters of rural Texas, divorced father Toby (Chris Pine) is struggling to make ends meet. The recession has ravaged the local communities and any sign of recovery has not stretched out this far. His family’s ranch is up for foreclosure. He needs cash – and fast. His ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is the more irresponsible and reckless one. Together, they set out to quickly rob a number of banks for small amounts of cash – just enough to pay the greedy bank waiting to gobble up the ranch. On their trail is grizzled old Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his half-breed compadre Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus knows what these boys are up to and is determined to stop them in their tracks, come hell or high water…

    Now this is what you call a real thriller, full of well-written characters, tense stand-offs and some surprising character turns – all laced with a healthy dose of Texan humour. Taylor Sheridan’s script is a cautionary morality tale about the dangers of getting involved in crime. The brothers don’t set out to kill anyone, but they find themselves in high water, with hell just waiting to open up and swallow them. At it’s core though, it’s a story of two brothers driven to desperate ends to hold onto the only thing they really have – their home. At one point in the film, Toby says that he wants to lay down a real future for his children, that they will never know poverty the way he did. What father wouldn’t want the best for his children, particularly when a little guy like him is shouldering the burden of the recession? It’s a thought-provoking film, but it’s also a very entertaining one too.

    Shooting in New Mexico rather than the Lone Star state, Mackenzie has that painterly foreigner’s eye for classic Americana – fields of wheat blowing in the wind, sleepy towns, wise old-timers and sassy waitresses (there’s a real humdinger of one in this film). But he also makes it feel of the now, rather than the nostalgic. Pine and Foster, working together again after The Finest Hours, establish a great rapport and brotherly affection. Any doubters of Pine’s talent should be silenced by his quietly powerful performance here. Bridges fits the part of a Texas Ranger perfectly and is the source of a lot of dry humour in his banter with Birmingham. There are two double acts here which are reflective of each other in terms of character arcs – these cops and robbers have more in common than they think.

    Hell Or High Water could have been a basic cops-and-robbers story set in the Lone Star state, but it’s been elevated by Mackenzie, Sheridan and their actors into something altogether special. Come hell or high water, this is a film you simply need to see. ****

  • emerb

    “Hell Or High Water” is the latest movie from British director David MacKensie and based on a script from Taylor Sheridan (who wrote “Sicario”). It is a superbly crafted modern Western thriller taking place in an economically devastated West Texas. On the face of it a tale of two brothers on a bank-robbery spree and a
    pair of Texas rangers who pursue them sounds like nothing special, but it is. Not only is this movie a gripping tale of desperation in hard times, it also a deep and intricate character study and deserves to become a mainstream hit, even possibly an awards contender.

    Siblings Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) grew up in poverty on a West Texas cattle ranch that’s been failing for years. Tanner has recently been released from prison and was absent for the painful death of their mother. The family ranch has fallen deeply into debt and now risks foreclosure like many other homes in the area. Divorced Toby has found oil on the land and so he devises a plan to pay off the mortgage and taxes which would enable him to put the ranch into a trust for his two sons, both living with his bitter ex-wife (Marin
    Ireland). To pull all this off, Toby asks for Tanner’s help in a series of bank robberies of small-town Texas Midland banks. They will minimize their chances of capture by taking small unmarked bills from the register early in the morning, getting in and out quickly and making sure that no one gets hurt. They have also 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. While Toby is calm, methodical and principled, the problem is that the hot headed Tanner is reckless and violent. He enjoys guns, crime and chaos and has no interest in rules, getting a kick out of the dangerous escapades. This heightens the risk of them being caught and it’s not long before the brothers come under the scrutiny of soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

    Pine and Foster are genuinely convincing with an affectionate yet conflicted bond that draws you in. Pine in particular impresses. He has struggled to find decent roles outside of Captain Kirk but this could well be his breakthrough. With his mustache and greased-back hair, he delivers a subtle, understated portrayal of a good man driven to do wrong but perhaps he has reasons we can sympathise with. Ben Foster makes Tanner highly entertaining – a real bad boy, a dangerous live-wire, a thief who has spent years in prison and doesn’t have the
    patience nor the will to go straight. Crime is the only life he knows and his character makes a marked contrast from the inherently good, soulful Toby who has to compromise his values for his dreams of the future and his determination to make up for past mistakes. Bridges is clearly having a blast and fully embraces the character of Marcus Hamilton. His is a deadpan yet highly entertaining performance, perhaps a career best. As a tobacco-chewing man approaching retirement, he makes it clear that the years have done nothing to blunt his intelligence and wit. Birmingham makes a strong foil and his Alberto gives as good as he gets, firing back at Hamilton for the battering insults about his mixed Native American-Mexican heritage he constantly receives.

    There is so much to enjoy about “Hell or High Water”. It’s a real cracker of a thriller and also a compelling drama. For those who like action, the unsettling violence, getaway sequences and car chases charge up the atmosphere at just the right points. The dialogue is also surprisingly funny. On top of that, the cinematography is magnificent – sweeping visions of a sun-roasted, vast, barren countryside are contrasted with the sleepy, dismal, dusty towns where nobody sees a future – the economic plague has virtually wiped out communities everywhere. We get an understanding of what drives ordinary people to commit crimes and this gives it an authenticity. This film will undoubtedly find a niche audience, but it deserves more. Its key marketing draw will be the appeal of Chris
    Pine and Ben Foster playing the two estranged brothers and the wonderful turn from Jeff Bridges. In short, this film is top-class, well worth seeking out.