Taylor Sheridan is a writer who has arrived in a big way — already established as an actor (he played a recurring role on Sons Of Anarchy), he delivered an impressive script for last year’s SICARIO and has now dwarved that achievement with the indelible Southern-fried storytelling of HELL OR HIGH WATER. It’s intriguing that in both cases, here’s an American writer providing screenplays for foreign filmmakers — SICARIO‘s Denis Villenueve is French-Canadian and HELL OR HIGH WATER‘s David Mackenzie is British — that has given us stark and disturbing visions of America through a prism of uncommon clarity. In neither case is the storyline the most original element of the final film — it’s far more the attention to detail, character, and place, and the overarching perspective, that resonate.
HELL OR HIGH WATER looks vaguely familiar. It’s a modern-day crime film set in Texas, giving it the retro feeling of an American Western. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a relatively recent high-water mark in the genre, and it’s a compliment to note that this newer film doesn’t exactly shrink at such a flattering comparison. That said, it’s fairly startling to see Jeff Bridges, an actor we’ve seen grow up onscreen over several decades, now aging into the Tommy Lee Jones role.
Bridges plays a US Marshal on the verge of retirement, paired with a half-Indian/ half-Mexican partner (Gil Birmingham) in pursuit of a pair of bank robbers on a crime spree. The unrelenting race-based ball-busting between the two lawmen is a major source of the film’s disarming humor. It’s genuinely funny, and mostly good-natured, although in this calendar year, in view of our current political climate in 2016, the older white man’s repeated ribbing of his twice-a-minority subordinate dances dangerously — and revealingly — close to discomfort.
That’s what’s most intriguing about HELL OR HIGH WATER; the way it uses the most heavily-worn genre signposts as indicators of a very modern moment. Sometimes it feels a little heavy-handed and on-the-nose, a la 2012’s KILLING THEM SOFTLY, but as with KILLING THEM SOFTLY, it’s better to have a movie that boldly engages with hot-button issues than one that shies in the face of them. For example, there are a pair of “good guy with a gun” scenes in this movie that may be among the best ever crafted. In the first, an ancient cowpoke is joking warmly with a young teller when the two masked men storm the bank, waving guns and demanding cash from the till. The old-timer’s eyes go red and he chases the escaping thieves with his own sizable handgun (Texas being an open-carry state), blasting wildly in righteous anger.
The second scene is even more of an unforgettable punchline. After an intense bank robbery scene, a group of bank customers, all armed, grab their guns and hop in their SUVs, tailing the criminals down the highway in a determined motorcade. That’s until the robbers pull over and one gets out with a high-caliber automatic rifle, shooting at the pursuers relentlessly until they turn tail and speed off. That isn’t to say the point of view of HELL OR HIGH WATER is determinedly liberal or conservative, pro-NRA or in favor of gun control. It’s more fatalistic — no matter how tough you think you are, there will always be somebody tougher. No matter how crazy you are, there’s always somebody crazier. And no matter how big your gun is, there’s somebody out there with a bigger one. So be wary, that’s all. There are consequences to words and to actions alike.
The threadbare plot’s twin engines, the pair of bank robbers on such a mad tear through the Lone Star State, are brothers played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine. No, they don’t look to be related; that’s probably part of the point. Both of these actors are still relatively under-acknowledged despite how successful they’ve been over the past decade, and both find very welcome new facets in both their own personas and in the supposedly standard-issue characters they’re playing. How many times have we seen the more reserved, heroic leading-man type paired with the wild-eyed character actor who keeps getting them both into trouble? In HELL OR HIGH WATER, that dynamic absolutely does play out for the ten-thousandth time — only then comes the curveball. And another one after that. See this movie and think about how really, the two actors could have traded roles, and the movie would most likely still work as well as it already does — that’s a testament to the writing and to the performances.
The reward of HELL OR HIGH WATER isn’t that the events it portrays are overwhelmingly unique, or even that it’s hard to tell where it’s going. The reward is in the amount of care put into the regional feel of the dialogue and the tangible legitimacy sense of the casting decisions. The movie can and probably will be compared to the work of Quentin Tarantino, the Coens, or Michael Mann in that every last speaking character has an interesting face and an even more interesting manner of speaking (the waitress in the above still frame with Jeff Bridges delivers a scene for the time capsule), but it could just as easily be compared to the work of Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, or Spike Lee in its geographic authenticity, or at least the perception of such. You don’t have to have been to Texas, or even to America, to sense that this feels like Texas, like America, and that the movie has something to say about both.
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