Hell or High Water

What do you get when you combine No Country for Old Men, the newer True Grit, The Last Picture Show, Bonnie and Clyde, Lone Star and High Sierra? It may well be something like Hell or High Water, a film getting nowhere near the attention it deserves. The plot has something to do with two brothers, one of whom cared for their recently deceased mom and one who was able to avoid that responsibility by being in prison.

But the plot is just what all the talk and action hangs on. There are bank robberies, close working friendships both connected and repelled by racist remarks said with something like love, a look at the depressed plains and economies of Texas, strong anti-bank sentiments that sound like they came from pre-Code, Depression-era films, deep brotherly love, and a father’s somewhat misguided sense of parental care.

The script is the high point of the film. Lean and mean, it implies rather than tells, revealing in layers rather than in the first few minutes. It respects the viewer, and demands some work on the viewer’s part, and for that is a delightful rarity. It’s also very funny, though not in the way most comedies are; the laughs are in our responses to the one-liners and back-and-forth discussions. Nothing is played for laughs, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of humor to be enjoyed.

The cinematography is sometimes gritty and real, and sometimes a little too self-consciously beautiful, like the recent True Grit. But that older film had a fable-like quality that Hell or High Water seems to eschew, and the contrast between the two styles can be disconcerting at times.

The acting helps hold things together. Chris Pine, who has proven his action hero and musical chops, must have loved being offered this role, one that is aimed at producers and directors more than the public. It’s a decided change of pace for him. It’s an internal performance except when it’s not, and the actor holds back when necessary instead of grabbing the emotional moments for all they’re worth. Matching him is Ben Foster, well known for his patented brand of crazy. The apparent Richard Widmark of our generation, Foster does crazy from the inside instead of the outside, yet can charm a snake when necessary.

On the other side of the law is another great pair. The stronger half of the pair is Jeff Bridges, doing a little-more-understandable Rooster Cogburn vocally (will someone please give him another kind of role–please?). Of course he’s good, and his character may supply the grist for many an analytical paper on the push-pull relationship he has with his Mexican/Native American partner, played by Gil Birmingham, who is touchingly believable if he’s speaking or silently reacting to Bridges’ character.

The film feels both hot and cool. The desolate countryside and country roads feel sweaty and uncomfortable, yet the sensibility of the film is somewhere between yesterday’s Westerns and today’s indie films. There is also a “does it belong or not?” coda to the film’s main activities, one that reminded this viewer of the final speech and theme of unstoppable evil that came at the end of No Country for Old Men. The film is clearly aiming at a deeper meaning about many an issue (fatherhood, responsibility, lack thereof, etc.) that the film has touched on. Whether that scene overstates or lifts the film may be decided upon over time. I’m undecided—but not about the worth of the film.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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