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Hell or High Water - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Hell or High Water
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

The action doesn't move very quickly in Hell or High Water. Some might even call it slow. But, sometimes that's what makes a movie exceptional -- and in this case, it gives us time to get to know the four central characters in a way that forces us to navigate a moral gray area.

We see early on that the story is set in economically depressed West Texas, and director David Mackenzie fills the movie from beginning to end with powerful images of rural towns in decay. Much of this can also be credited to the excellent cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, which perfectly matches the tightly polished script by Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan, as it happens, also wrote last year's deeply affecting Sicario, which Hell or High Water often evokes in both look and themes. This is a subtly provocative film that doesn't let viewers off the hook.

It starts with the first of several bank robberies, perpetrated by the brothers Toby (Chris Pine, never better) and Tanner (Ben Foster, nearly unrecognizable). They're very careful with their methods so as to avoid the attention of the FBI, and are attempting to raise -- through crime -- an amount of money needed to save their family's farm. It's noteworthy that they are targeting the bank to which the farm's debts are owed.

Most of the film jumps back and forth between these two, and the two local police officers in pursuit. Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is just shy of a mandatory retirement he's not sure he's ready for. He amuses himself by making racist jokes at the expense of his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham ), who is half Native American and half Mexican. Given the setting of Texas and the local history, this detail could easily be overwrought in the wrong hands, but here it works out as a poignant detail not overly dwelled on. Like most of the themes in this film, it's there for contemplation should the viewer consider it.

Hell or High Water is the kind of movie in which nothing that winds up onscreen is an accident -- or at least, that's how it seems. There is at least one moment that touches on local history that goes back decades as well as centuries. It works well on a surface level, for viewers not concerned with deeper meaning, but has vast depths for those willing to see it. This isn't just a story about a couple of desperate bank robbers and the cops pursuing them.

This movie could arguably qualify as a Western, although it's set in contemporary times (imdb.com lists it as a crime drama, which it also is). They may drive cars, but Toby is still literally a cowboy. His brother Tanner, a recently released ex-con, maybe not so much. Toby is obsessed with saving the farm, and leaving it to his kids, and they are a bit mystified: "What am I going to do with a farm?" I won't spoil this key plot point, but it turns out Toby has a very good reason for saving that farm for them.

And thus the crime spree, and Toby's intellectual plotting of it, and Tanner's occasionally boneheaded mistakes in its execution. Tanner has already served time, after all. And they do quite well at what they do for some time, so we follow Marcus and Alberto in their pursuit, nearly always several steps behind.

But they inch closer. And in the meantime, we get to know these four men, and the nature of the relationship between the brothers, and of that between the cops. The amount of time spent getting to know them all significantly strengthens the impact of all of their fates in the end. Hell or High Water looks at first glance like it's perhaps not for everyone -- it seems like a genre film but it easily transcends genre. It builds steadily to a satisfying yet open-ended conclusion and it just might surprise you.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine are on a desperate mission in HELL OR HIGH WATER.

Overall: A-
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