by: Michael Shields
Making the case for David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water to win 2016’s Best Picture…
There is a scene in Hell or High Water, the captivating neo-western-noir directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up), that epitomizes the complex and enthralling relationship between the brothers at the heart of the film, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard. It begins, innocently enough, as the brothers roll up to a gas station. After filling up the tank Toby heads inside to pay as Tanner is left sitting in the driver seat. Before long, two sleeveless teens pull up in a neon green muscle car bumping death metal and, unprovoked, begin to verbally assault Tanner. It is worth noting before continuing, that of the pair of brothers, Tanner has established himself as the erratic sibling, the black sheep of the family who had recently concluded a bid in prison and who is considered flat out dangerous. Conversely, Tanner subsists as the more level-headed of the Howard brothers. He is sensible and generally gallant. Yet, when he emerges from the convenience store, with a Dr. Pepper and a pack of Winston Lights in hand for Toby, he wastes not a second in thought upon finding a young hooligan about to make a move on his brother, gun in hand. Not that Tanner needed assistance, mind you (“Boy, you’d think there were ten of me”), but before he is forced to flex his muscles in retaliation, Toby surprises the misled youth from behind and absolutely lays waste to him, as Tanner looks on with glee. This regard for brotherhood, on display in this shocking moment of brutality, is a grand part of what makes Hell or High Water so incredibly absorbing. There is so much nuance and conflict amongst the brothers, but they are bound by blood, and although their faithful bond and their commitment to it is spoken of infrequently, they are kin and that means everything to them. This notion of brotherhood, this undying bond, dramatically radiates off the screen in Hell or High Water in an altogether fascinating and engrossing fashion, acting as an effectual foundation of one of the finest films to be released in 2016.
Hell or High Water is a story of desperation, and the lengths the forlorn will go to take care of their own. Toby and Tanner are bank robbers, but not the typical sort, for they aren’t in search of that massive haul that will end their financial woes forevermore. Rather, they hit the cash drawers at the banks they rob exclusively, and most importantly, they target a specific bank chain – a local establishment with branches littered across the state of Texas. This is because the Howard boys, an unpolished and gruff duo, have an endgame involving sticking it to the bank that is preparing to foreclose on their family farm, ultimately paying back the hoggish bankers with their own money after laundering it at casinos run by Native Americans, a group of people who also know what it is like to be fucked over by the American “way of life.” Notably, in regard to the Native Americans who wash the Howard’s money, the original title of the film was intended to be Comancheria, a nod to the Comanche Indian’s land that the film unfolds across. At Least until the white man stripped it from under their feet, and in an apt turn of events, Hell or High Water finds that land being hijacked once again.
True to form, there cannot be a laudable heist film without lawmakers in pursuit, and the task of solving the string of robberies in Hell or High Water falls to the grizzled Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges), on the cusp of retirement, and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the butt of Marcus’ boorish quips. The delicacy in which both fronts of this multifaceted caper are presented allows the viewer a deep understanding of the psyche and motives of all involved, forging as weighty and substantive a chase film as you could find in theaters this past year.
There were few films in 2015 that awed me in the way the cartel crime thriller Sicario did, a film that was penned by Taylor Sheridan (who played Deputy Chief David Hale on Sons of Anarchy), and Hell or High Water, written by Sheridan as well, emphatically confirms the gift he possesses for story arc, dialogue, and for exploring the intricacies of human nature through exposing what compels a person. He, too, has an uncanny sense of place, exemplified by the downtrodden Texas landscapes in Hell or High Water. Shot with purpose and precision in New Mexico by Giles Nuttgens, the parched, sun soaked southwestern canvas where the crime spree plays out manifests itself timely. Serving as a snapshot of the American “Carnage” the United States’ newly-elected president harps on, Hell or High Water places under the microscope a region of the country where economic decline and desperation reigns. Within a true to form wild west, where vigilante justice endures, those that remain, embodied in the Howard brothers, are left to find a way to simply survive.
There is a remarkable patience that permeates throughout Hell or High Water, one that allows the viewer to intimately accompany both Toby and Tanner as well as Marcus and Alberto along their journey (the four actors who portray this quartet put on an outright acting tour de force!). And it is this intimacy, so exquisitely crafted, that propels Hell or High Water and heightens this tale of brotherhood in dire circumstances to a film that transcends its very genre, and forces the viewer to take a walk in the “hero’s” shoes (on both sides of the law) and to come to an understanding of how fine a line the difference between right and wrong can be sometimes. In a film rife with the pains that all too often define human connectivity and family, Hell or High Water triumphs as a modern day classic that pulls no punches, aims straight for the heart, and is dauntingly genuine in the embodiment of the struggles of so many in the land of the free.