Hell or High Water (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A familiar Texan genre exercise

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A few weeks ago, I had an interesting online chat with one of my acquaintances. He told me that it is not easy for him to enjoy movies because he is always aware of their inherent artificial sides shown from the screen, no matter how much they try to look real. In fact, that is why he usually prefers stage play performances, which do not hide their fake aspects at all from the beginning.

Like him, I am often quite conscious of those artificial aspects whenever I watch movies, and one of my dependable reviewing standards is whether they can get me involved in their plot or mood enough to make me less aware of their artificiality during my viewing. For example, I remember well how “Crash” (2004) annoyed me with contrived aspects during its first 30 minutes – and how it came to blow me away later with a number of elevating moments which were powerful enough for me to forgive its glaring weak points.

In case of “Hell or High Water”, this is a well-made crime drama with lots of things to enjoy and appreciate, and I could not help but be impressed by its vivid local sense of people and background, but I also found myself becoming rather distant to its occasionally tense but ultimately loose narrative. While I admire its technical aspects and performances, the movie sometimes seems to try a little too hard as brandishing its gritty style and mood, and I only observed its plot progress from the distance even though I did have a fairly good time with this familiar genre exercise.

During most of its running time, the movie alternates between two opposite positions, and one of them belongs to two desperate brothers who will do anything in the name of family. After their ailing mother recently died, their family ranch located in the West Texas region is going to be foreclosed unless they take care of their mortgage debt to a local bank within a week, and Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) want to keep their land because they know that the bank wants to own the land for the oil to be pumped out from it. If they can just pay off the bank debt, they may be the one who gets the oil money in question, which will certainly benefit Toby’s kids a lot in many ways.

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For getting the money for that within a week, they have a risky but clever criminal plan. During the memorable long take opening sequence, they rob one of several branches belonging to that local bank, and that is merely the first step of their plan. Targeting specific bunches of cash for safety, they also do not steal too much for avoiding the attention of the federal government, and the stolen money is promptly laundered at a casino in Oklahoma. Before local authorities can notice any sign of pattern, they must quickly carry out the rest of their plan at the other branches of the bank during the next few days.

Right from their first appearance, the contrasting personalities of Toby and Tanner are quite apparent to us. While Toby is the one who makes sure that everything goes well according to their plan, Tanner, an ex-con who was recently released after serving his long jail sentence, is a volatile, quick-tempered guy, and it goes without saying that his uncontrollable impulsive behaviors often exasperate his younger brother, though there is no doubt about the love and loyalty between these two criminal brothers.

Meanwhile, the movie shifts its focus to the other position from time to time. Marcus Howard (Jeff Bridges), an old veteran Texas Ranger who is about to retire, happens to be assigned to the case of Tanner and Toby’s first bank robberies, and it does not take much time for this seemingly goofy but wise, experienced codger to discern what is really going on. While others around him believe that it is just a simple small-time robbery case, Howard thinks otherwise, and, of course, he comes to get more confirmation on his intuition as investigating the case along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

The movie maintains its leisurely narrative pace as its two plot lines are slowly and inevitably converging on their destination, and the same thing can be said about Jeff Bridges, who clearly enjoys playing his colorful character as exuding his ever-reliable star quality. The way Howard repeatedly teases his partner with blatant racist remarks could become pretty irksome after two or three scenes, but Bridges somehow makes that clichéd stereotype trait engaging to watch, and his co-star Gil Birmingham is effective as his no-nonsense foil during their scenes.

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As the intense center of the film, Chris Pine and Ben Foster are convincing in the terse depiction of their characters’ strained but strong relationship. As a dependable actor who has been good at playing high-strung characters with unpredictable sides, Foster always keeps the plot on the edge, and Pine is surprisingly believable in his shabby but steely appearance, which shows us that he can do other things well besides Captain Kirk in the recently rebooted Star Trek series.

The director David Mackenzie, who previously made an electrifying prison drama “Starred Up” (2013), did a good job of establishing the authentic atmosphere around the screen. As the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds an extra local flavor to the mood, the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who previously collaborated with Mackenzie in “Young Adam” (2003) and “Hallam Foe” (2007), often dazzles our eyes with the wide shots of vast, barren landscapes, and the hard economic situation surrounding its characters and many other people feel palpable on the screen as we continue to notice certain advertisement boards placed along roads.

The screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, who previously wrote the screenplay for “Sicario” (2015). That was another familiar crime drama which was not that refreshing, but it did have some dark dramatic surprises boosted by its style and substance. Compared to that, “Hell or High Water” is less satisfying for being all about style rather than substance, and it did not surprise me much even while juggling the recognizable influences from the works of Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, and the Coen Brothers. Sometimes you can create something new from being eclectic, but you can also end up being merely eclectic in other times.

Anyway, thanks to its competent direction and commendable performances, “Hell or High Water“ is not mediocre at all although the overall result is not as distinctive as its makers intended. They may not succeed in bringing anything new to the genre, but, at least, they know how to handle its elements well, so I recommend the movie with some reservation.

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