Hell or High Water Review: American Dreams In the Depths of Texas

Photo Credit:http://collider.com/hell-or-high-water-new-trailer/

For all the big budget Hollywood failures this summer, Hell or High Water, a relatively simple, small-scale cops and robbers story, is by far the most American film of the year. Set in post-recession rural Texas, the main character’s goals are little more than the American Dream. But it’s also the film’s exercise in restrained emotion that makes it feel truly American. That defining characteristic is one that partially dooms the film, but mostly paves the way for its success.

With the bank taking hold of their deceased mother’s land, two brothers resort to robbing banks in their deceptively large and deceptively small region of Texas. Toby (Chris Pine) is doing it to provide for a family that’s lost faith in him. Tanner (Ben Foster), just out of prison, is in it for the thrill. On their tail are a pair of Texas Rangers, Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s just a case away from retirement, and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). At face value, it’s as simple a story as one can come up with.

And the first half feels simple, perhaps to a fault. The dual bank robbery opening scene only gives us the bear bones characterizations of the two brothers, the good one and the crazy one. Their dynamic is lacking when the drama is low, as the actors aren’t forced to show the men repressing anything. But as the film picks up steam, once the exposition about their family history is over and done with, we start seeing more than just two opposite personalities masquerading as brothers. Instead, they become two men who care very deeply about each other without a way to express it. It’s a very subtle portrayal of true kinship that they sometimes mask from each other to appear stronger. This authenticity gives Hell or High Water its heart, as buried beneath all the testosterone it may be. Director David Mackenzie pulled off a similar trick in his previous film, the prison drama Starred Up. His continued interest in exposing the fallacies of male relationships continues to be what makes him a unique voice in the world of cinema.

Eventually, the tension boils over and the emotions get more accessible, but that journey to accessibility feels both justified and earned. This place in the film is where Pine and particularly Foster, who deserves some awards attention for this one, really get to shine. The third act is as explosive and exciting as one would hope for from a cops and robbers story set in the land of the cowboys and indians. But the fact that Pine, Foster, and Mackenzie get us to care through non-expressions and subtle (to a fault) character beats is astonishing. So even while Hell or High Water takes a while to get where it’s going and reveal itself, the results are undeniably effective. The final shot is one of the most wholly satisfying of the year. The film itself doesn’t quite get there, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than just about anything else this summer. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

One Response to Hell or High Water Review: American Dreams In the Depths of Texas

  1. Skip Coan says:

    Best film I have seen this year,

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