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Hell or High Water

Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) teamed for Hell or High Water, and their effort earned a nomination for "Un Certain Regard" at the Cannes Film Festival.  This low budget, low profile heist film deserves the accolades.

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard pull on ski masks and pull off an amateurish if effective robbery of Midlands Bank. We soon learn that the self-same bank holds the mortgage on their family homestead, and the interest on the loan is such that Toby is losing ground and facing foreclosure.  He comes to the philosophical conclusion that poverty has become "genetic" in America, the genetic engineers are the bankers, and unless something drastic happens, it will never change for his family.  The homestead is the only thing Toby has, and he sees promise in the land, if only he can pay his debt and ensure the legacy for his estranged wife and two sons.  He is as bright as his plan is desperate: he plots to enter small branches of Midlands Bank in the morning when they open, take small amounts of untraceable bills from the cash drawers, and exit quickly without hurting anyone.  The idea of repaying his debt to Midlands Bank with its own money is an irony too juicy for him to resist.  Toby has enlisted his brother Tanner (as wild as Toby is bright), a man with some experience in robbery and the prison tattoos to show that he wasn't very good at it.  It doesn't take radar for us to pick up that this recruitment is a fateful choice.  And there is just enough radar to their plan that it catches the eye of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a crafty and grizzled Texas Ranger.  As Marcus explains it to his partner and straight-man Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), it's a small but smart plan, and Marcus decides to spend the final days before his retirement solving the crime rather than sitting behind a desk.  As Marcus and Alberto press on, the gap closes on Toby and Tanner, thanks to Marcus' experience and intuition.  The banter and the revelations along the way between Rangers and brothers bring us closer to them, and we pull for all of them to come through all right.  The bankers are the bad guys, after all.  But justice is justice, after all. 

Chris Pine is the only actor playing against type, a smart to move for the crucially handsome actor who so vividly plays Captain Kirk in the latest iteration of Star Trek.  He sells the role, and while his screen mates don't take the same risks, they are so good and blend so well that it doesn't matter  The crazy glint in Ben Foster's eyes risk leading him to the role of "that dangerous guy."  Gil Birmingham, as the Mexican-Comanche Ranger, falls into the stereotypical "sidekick" role: the competent deputy who stoically bears the brunt of his partner's verbal abuse.  And finally, Jeff Bridges, mumbling amiably through a reprise of the Rooster Cogburn role he played in the Coen brothers version of True Grit.

Bridges, playing Marcus Hamilton as Rooster Cogburn, might be a more telling bit of casting than first meets the eye.  The film is derivative, but that is not an insult, considering the source material.  Like Sicario, one of my favorites films from last year, Hell or High Water falls along the continuum leading to the ultimate modern Western: No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers four-Oscar masterpiece. 

These are logical comparisons. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan obviously has Cormac McCarthy envy.  McCarthy wrote the novel, No Country for Old Men, and Joel and Ethan Coen were the perfect pair to pen the adapted screenplay.  In writing Sicario, Sheridan captured No Country for Old Men's impending doom and suspense, but none of its black humor; in Hell or High Water, his entertaining screenplay has wry lines and some outright laughs, but in achieving that it sacrifices urgency and suspense.  And neither film captures the deep existential longing for Old West principles that McCarthy and the Coens mined. 

Mackenzie's direction enhances and fine-tunes Sheridan's strong screenplay.  As he did in his compelling prison drama, Starred Up, he immerses us in the gritty realism of both setting and story and getting the most out of his cast.  In several scenes, he uses local citizens, and his touch is such that they blend seamlessly with the actors.  Perhaps it is Mackenzie's objective British sensibilities that allow him to cast a desolate beauty to the harsh landscape and a Robin Hood-like nobility to the desperados, but his greatest strength is social commentary, wherein he channels Bertrand Russell in addressing the rapacious effect of the America's banking industry on the working class: "Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate."  Both cops and robbers recognize that, and therein lies the ambivalence with which we accept their fates.

8.5 out of 10

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