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Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water opens with a West Texas bank robbery. The robbers know what they’re doing; it’s first thing in the morning, the bank is empty, and they make sure only to take small bills and leave behind ink bags and marked bills. One of them, though, isn’t exactly professional; he looks like he’s having a little too much fun, and might end up shooting somebody just for insulting him.

That would be Ben Foster. He’s fresh out of jail, and you get the feeling he’s more comfortable behind bars — he walks through the world with a kind of nervous energy, like he knows that at any time, something is bound to happen to land him back behind bars, and he’s just wondering what it is and when it’ll be.Chris Pine plays his brother; he’s definitely the smart one, and also the straight-laced one. He has planned a series of small bank robberies to raise money for a good reason. His logic is air-tight, and if everything were to go according to plan, you’d decide he was the good guy in all of this.  Of course, everything doesn’t go according to plan, and that leaves the question about good and bad, black and white, pretty open to interpretation.

Add to the mix Jeff Bridges, in a fantastic performance as a crusty old Texas Ranger right on the edge of retirement who can’t imagine what he’s going to do with himself when he can’t chase bad guys anymore, and his partner, Native American actor Gil Birmingham, who suffers through Bridges’ racist teasing and insults with silence and an icy stare. This is the shit he has to put up with.  No doubt Bridges will get involved in a conversation about racism with some young liberal, and declare that one of his best friends is Indian, and doesn’t mind the jokes at all.  And he’d be dead wrong, but never know it.

Director David Mackenzie keeps the movie running like an efficient machine.  He has points to make beyond the cops and robbers story, about bankers, dying towns, cops, and outlaws — Birmingham gives a fine lean speech about how his people were displaced by the white ranchers, and now the white ranchers are being displaced by oil barons and bankers in the same way – but it never feels preachy or heavy-handed. It’s part of life in this place, and this place matters to the story that is being told.

Hell or High Water is set in what I hope is an exaggerated version of West Texas, where everyone is armed and just looking for a reason to shoot somebody.  Everybody wants to be a hero – Jeff Bridges wants to go out in a blaze of glory, and so does Ben Foster, who wants to be a famous outlaw, which is a kind of hero. Every Texan in every bank pulls a gun and ends up doing more property damage and probably costing the bank more than the bank robbers do.  It’s interesting, then, that the real heroes of the film are the two who don’t seem attracted by the Wild West mythology.  One just wants to take care of his family, one just wants to do his job.  Only one of them survive. Of course, one of them ends up dead.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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