Now, justice out West could be spotty at best,
From the stories of outlaws I’ve heard,
Where the reach of the law often wound to a draw
With the lines of what’s ethical blurred.
The days of the lone desperados have gone
Into textbook and legend and grave,
But their daring unrest still lives on in the West
In the folks who just barely behave.
MPAA rating: R
If not for its Oscar nominations, it’s doubtful I’d ever have watched Hell or High Water, since a modern heist western with an R rating isn’t the kind of film that would normally catch my interest. Yet this film turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and even if it had zero chance of winning Best Picture, I see why it was counted among the best films of 2016.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard, who embark on a robbery spree of Texas Midlands Bank branches, taking only small scores early in the morning. While Foster’s Tanner is the wild card who enjoys the criminal undertaking a bit too much, Pine’s Toby is the level head behind it all, revealing much more clever planning than Tanner’s improvised antics might indicate. Opposite these masked outlaws are Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton and Gil Birmingham as his half-Indian deputy Alberto, trying to track down the robbers and figure out their motives. While the Howard brothers are ostensibly the bad guys, the conflict isn’t good versus evil; it’s the law against the desperate. Toby and Tanner sticking it to the banks is part revenge but also done with selfless intentions, and Pine’s natural Captain Kirk likability ensures that the robbers never lose our sympathy, despite his criminal brother’s recklessness.
While the whole cast are in top form, with Bridges especially fitting his grizzled lawman role like a glove, the true star to me is the screenplay. There’s an evident bitterness toward the financial crash and predatory banks, as seen in building after building being foreclosed, and a perceptive commentary of the state of the classic West: cowboys coexist with neon green sports cars, and Alberto comments on the karmic irony of the land once again being taken away from its former owners. As for characterization, the relationships and conversations between characters seem to share a kind of grudging respect. The brothers bicker and cuss at each other but are still loving brothers at the end of the day, while Bridges’ Ranger enjoys teasing Alberto with all manner of Indian insults, but they know each other well enough to recognize the fondness behind the traded barbs. Even in the final scene, after things hardly turn out as any of them hoped, there’s a hint of respect behind the antagonism.
In addition, the film captures the down-to-earth attitude of Texas in general. As Ranger Hamilton says, “I love West Texas,” where the waitresses tell you what to order and the populace isn’t afraid to fight back. I loved when the patrons of one of the robbed banks actually peppered Toby’s car with gunfire and gave chase to the bandits; I doubt you’d see that kind of reaction anywhere else.
Hell or High Water still had too much language for my taste and a few violent moments, but overall it’s proof positive that Westerns are far from dead, even the familiar cops-and-robbers story. With a script that should have won the Oscar and an ending at once sad and fitting, it’s got all the grit and heart of a potential modern classic.
Best line: (Alberto) “I’m starving.”
(Hamilton) “I doubt they serve pemmican.”
(Alberto) “You know I’m part Mexican, too.”
(Hamilton) “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”
(Bank manager) “You rangers are an odd bunch.”
(Alberto) “No, just him.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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