JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Hell or High Water (Director: David Mackenzie) - January 28, 2017

Hell or High Water

3.5 3.5
102 min.

Don’t get mad, get even

In this latest offering of two-brother films for this awards season (cross-reference below), David Mackenzie’s has transformed Taylor Sheridan’s inventive, modern-era Western into a study of generational poverty fuelled by seemingly heartless banks who make money: win, lose or draw.

The premise of robbing the same bank (Texas Midlands) as the one that is threatening foreclosure on a reverse mortgage (taken out by the siblings’ recently deceased mother), laundering the cash in an obliging casino, then paying off the mortgage and back taxes with the bank’s own money will appeal to anyone who has gone through the pain of losing their property at the hands of apparently invincible corporations (only their own greed came back to cripple many of those in the late 2000s’ financial crisis).

Unfortunately, Mackenzie can’t resist pounding his message home with graffiti (“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”) and conveniently placed billboard shots (“Debt relief”; “Fast cash”) which are too on the nose, weakening rather than strengthening the overall message.

The three principals all turn in good performances. Ex-con (patricide, no less) Tanner is served up with grit and gumption by Ben Foster, happy to shoot his way out of any situation; younger sibling Toby is readily identifiable as the brains and soul of the pair thanks in large part to Chris Pine’s nuanced portrayal. Jeff Bridges positively devours the role of near-retirement Ranger Marcus Hamilton, but is forced to espouse a few putdowns too many to his “half-breed” partner (Gil Birmingham is a model of resigned stoicism).

The inevitable country songs (notably “I’m Not Afraid to Die” just prior to the BIG day) provide easygoing commentary to the action, while the haunting viola lines from the original score deftly set the troubling tone as Toby makes damn sure that his ex-wife and two boys will, once and for all, rise above the poverty line, finally joining the ranks of the haves.

With a subtler approach, Mackenzie might have delivered a knock-out punch and testament to systemic rage, but by the final, inevitable confrontation the troubling notion that some innocent people had to die to mark this account “paid in full” leaves no hero to be found. JWR

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Director - David Mackenzie
Writer - Taylor Sheridan
Cinematography - Giles Nuttgens
Production Design - Tom Duffield
Editor - Jake Roberts
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