Hell or High Water (2016)
Hell or High Water (2016)

Genre: Western and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 42 min.

Release Date: August 26th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R

Director: David Mackenzie Actors: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Amber Midthunder, Alma Sisneros, Marin Ireland




hen Tanner (Ben Foster) and his brother Toby (Chris Pine) attempt to rob the Texas Midlands Bank early one morning, they’re distraught to discover that the woman opening up the facility doesn’t actually have the code necessary to get inside the safe. But instead of accepting their mistake and fleeing, they wait another half-hour for the manager to arrive so that they can force him in at gunpoint. Later that same day, they hold up another bank, but this time they make the error of leaving a confiscated gun too close to a patron, who then fires off a few shots as they make their getaway.

Tanner is clearly the alpha, orchestrating the heists, coercing his younger brother to participate, and even exhibiting enthusiasm about the undertakings. He’s so impulsive and energetic that he even robs a bank while his brother finishes a lunch at a diner. Toby is quieter and certainly more sensitive, perhaps influenced by having to take care of his dying mother while Tanner previously spent time in prison. Since their crimes are limited to just a few thousand dollars from each branch, the FBI isn’t interested in investigating, leaving local Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to track down the thieves. As Marcus predicts, the pair of crooks are attempting to raise a set amount of cash for a very specific reason – and they won’t stop until their goal is met.

Since the setting of West Texas is rural, mercilessly sunny, dusty, spaced out, and isolated, there are plenty of opportunities to craft “Hell or High Water” into a modern Western. Horses are now cars (for the most part) and references are made to Wal-Mart and Home Depot, but everyone still carries a gun, wears boots, and fashions a cowboy hat. Large, bushy mustaches are also pretty common. Somber string melodies alternate with country music in the background, while characters reminisce about the good ol’ days, or going out in a blaze of glory, or the woes of a quiet retirement. Conversations and activities all insinuate the dying breed of the cowboy – and this filmmaking genre, even though it’s been virtually extinct for quite some time – as well as the miserableness of existence itself in such a setting (thanks, in part, to big business and greedy mismanagement destroying a simpler way of life).

The characters do occasionally present some surprises; Toby harbors some viciousness that proves quite useful at times (though it’s incredibly inconsistent with his design), while Tanner becomes appropriately protective when trouble arises. Bridges is the highlight of the personas, as he channels Marlon Brando’s godfather character, seemingly speaking with a mouth full of marbles and with as little facial movement as possible. He also lands some of the quirkiest lines, trading racist barbs with his Native American partner. But even at his ornery best, he’s not capable of garnering an image more potent than Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country for Old Men.”

Despite spontaneous stick-ups, a cocky recklessness in behaviors, and steadily closing Texas Rangers (though they’re extremely patient and calm, rather than barking orders and establishing a complex command center), the pacing is noticeably off. Character development is more of a priority than the action, but both are approached with a tiring unhurriedness, as if the cops and robbers were each cryptic metaphors for something multilayered and poetic. But in the end, the twosome are hugely unsympathetic, while their motives are slight and unfulfilling – making their high-stakes endeavors far less than suspenseful. Even last-minute, clever schemes (again, drastically out of character) can’t redeem an otherwise bland exercise in ordinary crime and uninspired consequences.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10