Sicario was my favorite film of 2015. It was written by Taylor Sherdian, an actor and writer perhaps best known for a supporting role on the TV series Sons of Anarchy. Sicario was a tense thriller about the drug war along the Texas/Mexico border. Hell or High Water is the latest film featuring his screenplay talent. The film also features considerable talent on the screen in the four main actors involved in the film. Despite its lower visibility, it is easily one of the better films to be released in a summer full of lousy blockbuster duds.
The film is set in northwest Texas, where two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) have set in motion a plan to rob banks in order to save their family ranch. The robberies are methodical, precise, and smartly executed, taking only cash in the registers to avoid dye packs. Toby is estranged from his two sons and ex-wife, while Tanner is recently released from jail having served time for previous bank robberies and other prior actions. Their robberies draw the attention of two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who set out on the trail of the two brothers hoping to figure out their method and catch them in the act.
The slow economic recovery is the backdrop of the story, in particular the banks and their lending practices in regards to homes. The ranch is days away from being foreclosed on, and while the full story is mostly only hinted at, what is clear is that the bank took advantage of their family’s situation as their mother was dying and Toby was out of work for a considerable amount of time. Large roadside billboards advertise debt solutions. Several characters comment throughout the film about how they feel little to no sympathy for the banks being stolen from, since they stole from the townsfolk first. An air of simmering resentment lingers in many parts of this film; resentment between people and the banks, between whites and Native Americans, and amongst family members present and deceased.
There is little resentment, though, between the two brothers or the two lawmen who are at the center of this film and stand on opposing sides of this well-crafted narrative. Despite having two very different personalities, Toby and Tanner have a strong bond of brotherly love between them, likely fostered from their upbringing and an abusive father. Tanner is the older and more compulsive of the two while Toby is quiet and cautious. It would be easy to see Tanner’s character in many other similar films being compulsive to the point of being reckless and destructive, but here it merely approaches that line without ever crossing it. The brothers know their objective and do not lose that focus. Pine and Foster have great chemistry together.
On the other stand Marcus and Alberto. Marcus is a veteran Ranger and accurately profiles the personalities of the two robbers they are after. He’s one of those old fashioned, gruff exterior types set in his ways. The relationship between Marcus and Alberto is steeped in familiarity and occasional exasperation. Alberto, being half Native American and half Mexican, takes a lot of jokes from Marcus at his expense, jokes that on one or two occasions seem to cross a line. Really, though, it is likely the only way Marcus knows to express himself with his partner. There is no malice behind his words, at one point even going so far as to disarm one moment between them that is getting a bit too tense by saying, “It’s my teasing you’re going to miss. It’s what you’ll laugh about when you’re standing over my grave and wish me well.” Later, Alberto is given a great monologue talking about how this land was taken from his ancestors and his people and that how the people who took it are now having it taken from them. The strength of this movie resides in the fact that these are fully formed, deep characters that ground the story.
Foster has been a hidden gem in Hollywood for quite a few years now; one of those actors who is not quite qualified in the eyes of Hollywood execs to be a leading man but overqualified to be merely a character actor. Tanner is another addition to find resume that Foster has crafted for himself, like he has done in 3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger, Lone Survivor, and a few other films. On almost the opposite end, Pine is a genuine surprise, showing great depth and restraint that he hasn’t had much chance to display as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek franchise or in other films he has made. Bridges is at his usual best, dipping a bit into his Rooster Cogburn performance in True Grit for a great Texas accent. Birmingham is the least known of the four main actors, but he enjoys great rapport with Bridges and makes Alberto feel like a lived in character.
Surrounding these characters is some beautiful cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and music crafted Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Both are at various times striking, haunting, and gritty. All of this is crafted by director David Mackenzie, a director who I have managed to see some of his previous films, including Starred Up and Perfect Sense. Starred Up was particularly great, but this film is easily his best yet. Everything is expertly crafted and executed.
Hell of High Water is more than just great alternative summer programming at the movie theater. It is one of the better films of the year so far because of the performances but also the carefully crafted story. It tells a bold story of desperation and mines it for great dramatic effect. In a disappointing summer of movies, it is a sure standout. If theaters were filled with more movies like this and less movies like bloated blockbuster sequels featuring superheroes, things might be more encouraging for the summer movie industry.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars