THE familiar narrative of cops taking on criminals forms the basis for Hell or High Water, an intriguing modern western that not only grips with genuine effect but progressively gets better as the film builds to its climax.
In Texas, two brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are on the verge of losing their late mother’s ranch due to a forthcoming foreclosure from the bank, with their only way of preventing that being to raise tens of thousands of dollars in limited time.
To achieve this, the pair begin robbing banks with their actions leading them to Oklahoma. Toby is more laid back whilst Tanner acts in contrast as a loose cannon, unafraid to commit acts that threaten his very safety, leaving his brother to come to his rescue often.
As their activities progress, their actions alert the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is only weeks away from retirement. Teaming with his long-suffering partner Parker (Gil Birmingham), his investigation makes him theorize that the brothers are going to be at a certain destination.
As his bordering on obsessive nature with searching for the pair gradually brings him closer to his prey, a significant robbery changes everything and brings the hunter and the hunted on a life-threatening collision course.
The success of Hell or High Water comes from two aspects, the first being its use of character structure, in that when looking at those representing the law and the criminal side, there is a sense that we want both to succeed in regards to their motives.
There is nothing admirable about the actions of the Howard brothers and never does director David MacKenzie glorify their behaviour. The more we observe their journey though, the more we want them to succeed at achieving their goal of securing back the ranch they are faced with losing, even when they commit what they do.
These two are not your conventional robbers and Pine and particularly Foster do a good job at making these two more than just standard within convention.
When it dawns that Toby’s objective is to ensure the security of his sons, we see a moral conscience that contrasts sharply with Tanner, whose loose cannon status ultimately threatens to be his downfall.
Bridges reminds us what an enjoyable presence he can be onscreen with Hamilton, a Ranger whose slight likability contributes to us wanting a result for him too, helped by Bridges’s charm. Making him on the verge of retirement also adds an element of determination and allows the character to remain just as vital and necessary to the story as the criminal counterparts, even if the investigation methods come across as somewhat ordinary. Even during his investigation when Walker orders tips that Toby gave a waitress to be taken in as evidence, he does so in a way that fails to leave a stain on his character.
The second and crucial aspect is just how unpredictable the film can be at times. We wonder whether by the end if the brothers are going to get away with their actions and who, if any, will be left alive.
The fact that Hamilton seems determined to go to great lengths to find them also suggests he too could be in danger, notably when he queries about the possibility of going down in a blaze of glory. Those words stick as we wonder are we heading to that or is it a red herring.
Whether it’s Toby laying a beating to a duo threatening Tanner to a humorous scenario when Walker and Parker encounter an elderly deadpan waitress with an unusual ordering style, the film is spread with scenes that engage with ease.
Whatever it is, there is no doubt that the tension is all but clear when the film enters its climactic stage. Involving pistols, sniper rifles and machine guns may not do favours for America’s gun concerns but for a film perspective, it is genuine edge-of-your-seat stuff and among the best sequences in cinema this year.
By the end, one feels satisfied with the routes that have been written for the characters and from a storyline perspective feels suitable to the story’s ability to stay unpredictable even to the end. Of the three characters, the right things happen to the right people and part of the film’s appeal is that are many ways that the film could end.
By choosing the ending on display, the filmmakers ultimately succeed on leaving the film on a note that gives no hint of frustration. On top of that, they provide something additional when it seems that all is said and done, creating more intensity but again delivering something with a conclusion that once satisfies.
Though the first half suggests a thriller that is enjoyable but not memorable, the second half pushes up a gear considerably and with its final act, conveys a tension that makes the film as a whole certainly worth the view.