‘Hell or High Water’ vividly taps into today’s troubled times

“Hell or High Water” is a great genre picture: film noir cannily combined with a Western, but with a modern-day setting.

Tapping into a genuine feeling of desperation and decline, and the fear of a bleak, unpromising future, the movie takes place in hardscrabble Texas after the economic crash, where things will never be the same again. Everyone is poor, everything is closing up, people are selling out and moving on.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as the Howard brothers, Toby and Tanner. Tanner (Foster) is a loose cannon, having spent a large portion of his life in prison, while Toby (Pine) has an ex-wife and two sons and a lot of unpaid alimony.

The brothers owe the bank thousands on their family ranch, and it will soon be foreclosed upon. So they come up with a plan: They will rob just enough to pay their mortgage and taxes. They’ll take just the cash in the teller’s drawers, rather than the traceable money from the vaults.

Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, in a great performance that recalls his Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”) — just days away from retirement — takes the case, accompanied by his stalwart half-Indian, half-Mexican (and Catholic) partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

The screenplay is by sometime actor Taylor Sheridan, who wrote one of last year’s smartest and best films, “Sicario,” and seems to have a bright future at the keyboard.

Australian director David Mackenzie has spent his career making strange, sometimes uncomfortable, envelope-pushing films. His last, “Starred Up,” was his best to date, and now he has topped it.

Together, Sheridan and Mackenzie have made the kind of beautiful crime drama that punches up a lackluster movie year, as “Blood Simple” and “One False Move” once did.

Yet it goes deeper, like a Jim Thompson novel, asking questions about why these people have done what they’ve done, and how they feel about it; it’s not about the thing itself.

Moreover, “Hell or High Water” creates a vivid world where people actually seem to live; we can imagine them going on after their scenes are done.

It’s also an alien world, where everyone is armed and that’s the law of the land. Yet there’s a fascinating kind of respect. The only real bad guys are the ones who sit behind desks and get greedy.


REVIEW

Hell or High Water
Three and a half stars
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Directed by David Mackenzie
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes

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