I hate to start this review by talking about another film, but one of my favorite movies ever is Bonnie and Clyde. One reason I haven’t reviewed it on the blog yet because I like it so much I can’t always see it with a critical eye. The past couple days since I’ve seen Hell or High Water, I keep thinking about Bonnie and Clyde, not least of all because they are both movies that have a strong strain of anti-establishment rebellion running through them that is manifest in Texas robberies. When I left Hell or High Water, I knew I liked the movie, a lot, but I wasn’t really sure how to critically examine it.
Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are brothers who have a bank robbery scheme. They hit branches of a particular bank (Texas Midlands) and take only small non-sequential bills. They ditch their car, get a new one, hit up a casino to change their money into an untraceable cashier’s check, then are home free. Chasing them are a Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is about to retire soon and feels he has one last chase in him. We learn that the Howards aren’t necessarily in it purely for personal profit; it has as much to do with sticking it to the man as making off with a lot of money.
The brilliant thing about this film is its structure. The plot unfolds in a straightforward way, but there is almost so exposition along the way. We never see characters lay out blueprints for a bank and explain their plan. It is slowly revealed to us over the course of the film, as we watch how Toby and Tanner rob the banks and then see where the money goes at the end. We get more information as the cops catch on to their plan as well, so we as the audience are sort of dragged in between these two parties in figuring out what is going on. In the beginning we have almost no information, but by the end we know the whole story.
As important as the characters is the Texas landscape they find themselves in. The photography presents it as vibrant and beautiful, which is at odds with how deserted and hopeless it actually is. It seems that almost every billboard they pass is an advertisement to get cash quick. The economic climate in this film is mainly what had me thinking of Bonnie and Clyde in the first place. Like in that film, many people in the area have lost their land to the bank in foreclosure, so they don’t mind anyone robbing the bank so much. When they Toby and Tanner are forced to rob a bank in a more crowded and affluent area because the one they had planned to hit is actually closed, they end up facing a lot more resistance. Everybody and their brother in this movie has a gun it seems, so it doesn’t take a lot for things to turn very violent very quick.
I suppose if this film has a drawback it’s that I didn’t get drawn into the emotional concerns of the characters as much as maybe I would have liked to. Coming away from the film, I remember the structure of the story and the background characters, but less of what the brothers and the rangers mean to each other. Maybe because the film holds this information so close to its chest for much of the running time, you don’t go through the whole film knowing the stakes for the family. This isn’t a huge criticism really, it just maybe explains a little why I had trouble tacking this review in the first place.
I still think this is one of the best films of the year so far. I liked the throwback western feel to it, and I respect the hell out of the screenplay and how information is slowly dispersed over the running time. I really liked the Texas landscape (actually filmed in New Mexico) and the deserted feeling of some of the towns. I maybe didn’t get as invested into the concerns of the characters themselves that much, but nevertheless Hell or High Water gets a strong recommendation from me.
“We ain’t stealing from you. We’re stealing from the bank.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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