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HELL OR HIGH WATER(director:David Mackenzie; screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan; cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens; editor: Jake Roberts; music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; cast: Chris Pine (Toby Howard), Ben Foster (Tanner Howard), Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton), Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker), Marin Ireland (Debbie Howard), Katy Mixon (Jenny Ann), John Paul Howard (Justin Howard), William Sterchi (Mr. Clauson), Dale Dickey (Elsie); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn; Film 44; 2016)
A brilliantly conceived hard-hitting modern Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A brilliantly conceived hard-hitting modern Western set in the desolate small towns of West Texas during the current economic downturn. It’s superbly acted by its three stars and fine supporting cast, intelligently written by Taylor Sheridan and sharply directed by Brit filmmaker David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”/”Perfect Sense”). It dissects the Western cowboy myth and offers an observant character study. To do so it passionately touches base with the desperate marginalized home owners who were mistreated by greedy banks over tricky reverse mortgages. It gives a voice to the underdog who is losing everything he valued to the corrupt system but still holds out hope for one last chance to strike it rich. The film centers around the close relationship between two brothers. Just released from serving a long prison term is the wild-eyed older brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), born to be a criminal. He joins his reserved trouble-free unemployed younger divorced brother Toby (Chris Pine) in an early morning masked armed robbery of a small Texas Midlands bank. They take small untraceable bills kept by the tellers and escape in a stolen car. The robberies continue on a daily basis for a week, and all are carried out in a similar manner. After several robberies, violence emerges when the outlaws meet resistance in a bigger bank. We learn the reasons for the robberies are because Toby’s mom just passed away and left the ranch to him, and if the mortgage and back taxes are not paid in a week the property is forfeited to the Texas Midlands bank. The property has additional value since oil was discovered on it. Toby’s plan is to make the mortgage payments and put the property in trust for his two teenage sons, and to start drilling for oil. Tanner is willing to sacrifice everything to help his smart but impoverished brother succeed. Toby’s advice to his older son (John Paul Howard), after telling him he will inherit the ranch–is not to be like him and to make the best of this opportunity to escape the family poverty cycle. The FBI refuses the case as being too small for them, so the Texas Rangers are assigned. The head investigator is the gruff elderly Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is being forced to retire after this case because of mandatory age requirements. His deputy is Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a proud Comanche-Mexican, who puts up with the constant ribbing about his ethnicity from his partner while firing back his own racial barbs. The tense crime film also delivers a potent political message, telling us in a deafening manner that the banks are the bad guys. Spray painted on a wall outside the scene of the first bank robbery are the words “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” The film sympathizes with the bank robbers and doubles down on its theme of a vanishing America when an old cowboy, a potential witness against one of the robbers, is questioned by the Texas Rangers and mockingly tells them “Bank been robbing me for 30 years.” The film leaves us with an America reminiscent of its pioneering days, one that’s still brimming with both hope and disillusionment. It hints that there is no longer a place in the west for the lonely or crestfallen to find peace in.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”