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Movie Review: #HellorHighWater

Hell or High Water is a welcome respite from the drudgery of this summer's movie season.

Review by Matt Cummings

Early Westerns - and even more recent ones - depict the bad guy as a black-hat wearing psychopath bent on destroying a town or wresting its people into submission. But with a film like the instantly classic Hell or High Water, that villain isn't a person at all, replaced in an interesting turn that makes this one of the best films of the year so far and the first must-see experience in many months.

For brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), the 2008 economic collapse has made farming and even basic survival in West Texas a near-impossibility. Faced with massive bills after their mother's death, Toby learns that the local bank has sunk his family into debt and seized the property, in hopes of drilling oil to amass a huge fortune. But Toby has a plan as well, and both he and Tanner set off an elaborate scheme to rob specific banks in the region. While not the best bank robbers, the former convict and unpredictable Tanner soon has local Rangers on their trail, including the soon-to-retire old school Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Jim Birmingham). As the deadline approaches to take back the property, Tanner and Toby run up against Marcus when another robbery turns deadly, forcing each side to question their resolve as the body count begins to rise.

Funny, acerbic as Hell, and ready to punch you in the face if you don't like it, Hell or High Water is also superbly acted, beautifully shot, and a stunningly white-knuckled affair. There's desperation in everyone's voice, as if the entire structure of civilized society is waning at the hands of corporations that care more bottom lines than people. Director David Mackenzie makes us feel this plight vis a vis ordinary people who either force their dim views on people with terrific one-liners or show it in their worn and weathered faces. When Marcus attempts to order food across from one of the banks, he's berated by a craggy waitress who demands he "choose what you don't want" as everyone here eats steaks. He can skip the corn or beans but he's having a steak, and that's the end of it. These title moments permeate Hell or High Water like a glass of fine wine: the script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) reacts to every inch of your palette, releasing complex aromas from the psychotic Tanner, to the pragmatic Toby, and the asshole Marcus who berates his Native American partner to the point that someone should have accused him of harassment. That might not sound like a pleasant mixture, but believe me it's instant velvet in your mouth.

The cast is exceptional, with even smaller roles standing out for the few moments they appear, only to fade away like every sad story here. We've always loved Pine for his onscreen presence, and here his interaction with Foster might actually be better than anything he's ever done. Foster has been branded as an the 'on the edge' actor, but when he's so good in roles like Tanner, you find yourself hoping he's never given anything less. Hell or High Water boasts at least five Oscar worthy performances, including our team behind the camera. The fifth in this collection, Bridges is perhaps its best, who takes Marcus through a harrowing 5 minutes in which almost every emotion possible is produced. He makes the whole thing look effortless, thoroughly unseating any doubts we may have had about his frankly shoehorned performances since the excellent True Grit. But it's Mackenzie who keeps the tension taut, forcing the Howards into a spiraling cycle of violence that won't end well for anyone involved.

But just when you think you've got Hell or High Water figured out, Mackenzie grants us a fantastic closing scene that fires a shot across our bow without the use of any gun. It's elaborate in its simplicity and amazingly effective as an epilogue to all the violence we've witnessed. But that's a moment in a movie filled with many that I shouldn't share, because Toby and Tanner's plot to rescue their family farm is as diabolical and brilliant as anything we've seen this year. Others are nimble character studies that know just when to step aside in favor of the next robbery or funny moment. Once dismissed by the industry as an unassailable script, Hell or High Water proudly exercises any demons to deliver both a mesmerizing character tale and an exhilarating ride through West Texas (or New Mexico, based on tax credits offered there) courtesy of an undeniable force of brothers that really do know when to quit.

An instant classic no matter where it may lie on the Western genre scale, Hell or High Water serves as the perfect recipe for the worst box office summer in recent memory. Filled with at least five serious Oscar-level performances, its desperate story set in desperate times should resonate with moviegoers ready for something smarter than the average bear. The only problem might be finding a theater that's hosting it, making any chance for a deep run about as likely as West Texas ever rebuilding after the 2008 collapse. But see Hell or High Water regardless of how far you might have to drive.

Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality and has a runtime of 102 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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