- Published Date
- by Frank Wilkins
In David Mackenzie’s new film, Hell or High Water, the sprawling West Texas setting – as beautiful as it is rugged – conceals the crushing desolation of its sun-bleached towns whose futures have long since shriveled in the Texas heat. Hard-pressed ranchers, abandoned farm equipment, ramshackle gas stations, and 3-table diners are as plentiful as the broken down pump jacks that dot the plains. The people here are beaten-down and desperate – the banks having sucked them dry.
It’s this soul-crushing despair that drives two young ski-masked outlaws, brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), to walk into a small branch of Midlands Bank, and walk out with their hands full of cash from the teller drawers. They hit a few more branches of the same bank across the state, always taking only small bills to minimize their chances of being caught.
Their goal is two-fold: stick it to the banks that have been sticking it to the townspeople for so many years; and to get just enough money to keep their late mother’s ranch out of foreclosure. As their plan unfolds, however, a deliciously sneaky third wrinkle is revealed that I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that the banks get screwed twice as the scenario unfolds.
On the brothers’ tail are a pair of swaggering Texas Rangers – grizzled Marcus and straight-laced Alberto (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). This is Marcus’s last case before he heads to the easy life of front porch-rocking and bird house-building. His slow Texas drawl cleverly masks a sharp wit and a legendary notoriety for always catching the bad guy. He’s much sharper than he lets on and his constant non-PC ribbing of Alberto’s mixed Mexican and Indian race never gets in the way of letting us know that he’s always trying to stay one step ahead of the bank robbers. Despite their obvious differences, there’s a respectable rapport between the two lawmen that brings a much-needed sense of ease and humor to the often overwhelmingly sorrowful proceedings. Besides the impoverished Texas landscape that has taken a massive toll on its hardscrabble inhabitants, these two are the stars of the show. Hell or High Water is always better when Bridges and Birmingham are sharing the screen.
That’s not to say that Pine and Foster are ever overshadowed, however. Surprisingly, they both bring a much-welcomed emotional heft to their roles. Pine shows a painful darkness behind his forebodingly calm demeanor that we’ve not often seen from him, while Foster twitches inside his hair-trigger impatience as he eagerly anticipates their next holdup. The two are brothers, but like Marcus and Alberto, their differences are lovingly crafted by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan whose story relies on vital oxymoronic pairings for a lot of its success. Rangers Marcus and Alberto, the evil banks and the downtrodden townspeople, and the small cities against the open plains pair up with equal screen time from Mackenzie. Foster and Pine certainly hold up their end of the bargain with performances to be considered among their very best.
Hell or High Water is a familiar modern-day crime story that plays out with many of the themes and elements common to the classic Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Throw in the grit and grime of more recent affairs such as Pekinpah’s The Getaway, and the Coens’ Fargo, and No Country for Old Men for a vivid illustration of the look and feel Mackenzie pulls off here. One thing Hell or High Water will never be called, however, is formulaic. It will always have you on your toes even if you figure out early on where it is going. It's fresh and exciting, yet at the same time comfortable, dangerous, and moody. Watching Hell or High Water is like slipping on a well-worn pair of leather slippers. The kind with the fuzzy flannel lining. Just know that Texas spiders and scorpions like to hide in fuzzy flannel slippers. Beware!
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality
Runtime: 102 mins
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine
Genre: Drama | Crime
Tagline: Justice isn't a crime
Memorable Movie Quote: "Ain't never known nobody gor away with nuthin'"
Distributor: CBS Films
Official Site: Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine
Release Date: August 12, 2016
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Two brothers, Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster), go on a calculated bank robbery spree that puts them on a collision course with a West Texas Ranger (Bridges) determined to take them down.
Home Video Distributor: Lionsgate Films
Available on Blu-ray - November 22, 2016
Screen Formats: 2.40:1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; English: Dolby Digital 2.0; Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; Two-disc set; UV digital copy; iTunes digital copy; Digital copy; DVD copy
Region Encoding: Region A
The grit in Hell or High Water is not limited to solely the script. This is made evident by the detail in Lionsgate’s 1080p transfer, presented with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It is superb. With good clarity and black levels that are defined and structured, the Texas landscape that fills the camera is as authentic as it sounds. Reds, yellows, and oranges dominate the screen and, as the environment is one that is as harsh as it is expressive, the entire production becomes a virtual stroll through the broken side of life. The release supports a strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which gives the picture a vocal push that equals its engaging view.
Housed in a slipcover with a copy of the film’s new (and awesome) art, the blu-ray release is a combo pack, with a DVD and digital copy redeemable on iTunes or UV providers included in the purchase. The supplemental material focuses its times with the characters in the movie and it is all a bit too brief for my liking. Granted, this is the first release of the movie and, as it is bound to do well at the Oscars this year, we’ll probably get another release sometime down the road. Outside of the character pieces, we get Red Carpet premiere footage, and an extended filmmaker Q & A, which is the best featurette on the release.
- Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water (14 min)
- Visualizing the Heart of America (9 min)
- Damaged Heroes: The Performance of Hell or High Water (12 min)
- Red Carpet Premiere (2 min)
- Filmmaker Q & A (30 min)