This Texan tale is tautly told

by Gazette Reporter
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THE gruff West Texans of Hell or High Water (Cert 15A, 102mins) constantly wax lyrical about an America that’s “long gone” – lost to banks and big business.
Accordingly, with this pensive and compelling crime thriller, director David McKenzie drags that most American of genres – the western – into the modern day, guns blazing.
The action here is carried out across vast, expansive Texan landscapes and small, backwater towns where the banks are seizing long-held family properties, and small hardware stores are being out-priced and shut down.
Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are robbing banks from one town to the next. Unlike typical banks robbers, the brothers steal only small amounts from each, and are hitting a specific chain – the bank that happens to be foreclosing on their family home.
Just a couple of weeks from retirement, surly but good-natured Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is hot on the boys’ heels. Having figured out a kind of logic in their unorthodox heists, he and partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) begin to close in.
What begins as a fairly archetypal “good thug, bad thug” relationship between the Howard brothers rapidly gives way to a more nuanced, complicated dynamic. While Toby’s motives seem more obvious at first, each brother has his reasons for heading down this road.
Pine is surprisingly convincing here as the quieter, brooding Toby, betraying the usual cocky but likeable performance we know him for.
Foster shines, however, as ex-con Tanner, hamming it up from time to time, but expertly taking control of the script to deliver a compelling performance, revealing the ghosts of their familial past.
Bolstering everything here is the script from Taylor Sheridan, writer of last year’s ultra-dark narco-thriller, Sicario.
Peppered with a kind of witty, matter-of-fact banter that never grates, the dialogue maintains an expert functionality, touching on critical issues facing rural America and turning even the most insignificant character into an elegiac social commentator.
Perhaps the message is driven home a little hard at times; each and every character has their part to say about this slowly dying America.
However, Sheridan’s verbal commentary works in harmonious tandem with McKenzie’s camera – each brooding chunk of dialogue is underlined by an expanse of abandoned farmland or borderline-ghost town.
Inarguably, the most irresistible element of Hell or High Water is Bridges’ endearing turn as Ranger Marcus.
With a lifetime of experience under his belt, it doesn’t take long for him to decipher the Howard brothers’ pattern, and each twist in the investigation is worked out with words of grizzled, unvarnished Texan wisdom.
Hell or High Water takes place in an America where everyone carries a concealed weapons permit; perhaps Marcus’ job is made a little easier when every bank customer is holding a firearm, and when local good ol’ boys can engage in high-speed chases and shoot outs with perps.
All that this establishes, really, is a vast expanse of a moral grey area. It’s impossible to know who to root for, and that makes it all the more compelling – we hang anxiously on each opposing strand of the story.
Hell or High Water is expertly paced; tense when it needs to be and emotional in all the right places – making it a pitch-perfect neo-western.
Verdict: 9/10

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