After a summer loaded with mediocre films here’s an intense, gritty thriller with a pitch-perfect sense of atmosphere and the palpable aura of blue-collar desperation. British director David Mackenzie, (whose 8 previous films give little hint of the talent displayed here) works from a script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) the main characters of which are a pair of down-at-the-heel brothers (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) whose crime spree serves as the final assignment given to an aging Texas cop played by Jeff Bridges. It’s wonderful when an unheralded movie provides a couple of outstanding elements; but this one excels across the board, making it perhaps the best film out thus far this year.
Tanner and Toby Howard (Foster & Pine) open the movie by robbing the small branch of a regional bank in West Texas. But when that crime becomes the first in a series, Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) takes over the case and the storyline deftly pivots between the perpetrators of an apparently aimless crime spree and the gruff, cynical trooper who teases out the brothers’ strategy. As this cat & mouse game plays out in the parched landscape engulfing the weather-beaten towns Tanner calls “Comanche Land", the personalities and histories of this trio are woven into an intricate portrait of one man’s need to protect the values of a law-abiding society when set against the pressures faced by marginalized siblings pushed to desperation in the grubby circumstances and hardscrabble economy they live in.
In his recent bestseller, “Hillbilly Elegy-A Memoir of a Culture in Crisis”, author J.D. Vance provides a discerning examination of America’s white underclass. As if in an attempt to bring that book’s thesis to life, along comes Hell or HighWater to embody, in image, dialogue & music, precisely what Vance describes in his exploration of the pent-up frustrations, hopelessness and sense of alienation from our country’s promises that Donald Trump’s chaotic race for the presidency has tapped into so successfully. If you want to explore that phenomenon, this would be an excellent place to begin.
Sheridan’s screenplay seamlessly blends pulsating action with a penetrating analysis of his characters’ psyches; Bridge’s cannily verbose lawman hints at the type of lazy energy he embodied in his Oscar-winning portrayal of a country singer past his prime in Crazy Heart while Ben Foster delivers another riveting portrayal of man flirting with a nihilistic death-wish. But it’s Chris Pine’s quiet determination and curious combination of honor wrapped in a skewed code of ethics that forms the center of the film; in this role he stops being just another pretty face appearing in a string of comic book action movies and takes his place among the best actors of his generation.
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens provides images of The Lone Star State that swallow up tiny communities and the people who live in them while Production Designer Tom Duffield’s parade of rusted ranching equipment, dreary oil rigs and dilapidated strip malls speak volumes about how cramped lives are actually lived in many of the chronically depressed parts of the U.S.
Thrillers don’t usually end with an ominuous standoff, but the final confrontation between Bridge’s determined efforts to represent society’s demand for justice and Pine’s feral defense of his actions simply confirms that Hell or High Water may be the best thinking man’s melodrama of this or any year.
The Verdict? If you want to be reminded of just how good a Hollywood movie can be, see this one.
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