'Hell Or High Water' Delivers Indie Gold
Crime drama provides timely social commentary
"The Last Picture Show" (1971)
"Starred Up" (2013)
The new film "Hell or High Water" (opening Aug. 12 in select San Diego theaters) looks to a pair of Texas brothers on a crime spree. But it’s about a lot more than bank robbers on the run.
"Hell or High Water" is something rare. It’s a film for adults and by that I mean it’s smart, it has something to say, and it doesn’t condescend to the audience. This starts with the script by Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote the excellent "Sicario"), which delivers both a crime drama and a social commentary.
Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) are Texas brothers that set off on a crime spree robbing banks. They are stealing too little to generate FBI interest but more than enough to catch the eye of about-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges borrowing a few notes from Tommy Lee Jones in "No Country for Old Men"). Hamilton and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) set out to investigate the crimes and along the way discover that while the brothers are committing the overt crime, the real villains may be the banks themselves.
Parker, who is part Mexican and part Native American, points out that back in the day the land was stolen from his ancestors by armies and people with guns. Now banks and corporations are doing the same thing but with pens and papers rather than guns.
David MacKenzie fell in love with Sheridan’s script and directs the film.
"The film has thriller kind of bank robbery elements to it, kind of cops and robbers element to it. But also it’s a serious snapshot of some of the open wounds of America right now. It’s not judgmental but you can see them," he said.
But he added that it's also funny. The two high points of entertainment that lighten the film's darker tones involve waitresses. The first waitress (played by Katie Mixon) refuses to turn over a $200 tip from the bank robbers and the second (played by Margaret Bowman) is a crotchety server who's only interested in what you don't want. Bowman steals the film and although her scene has no direct bearing on the plot of the film it is perhaps the best moment the film serves up. The richness of these secondary characters is part of what makes the film so great.
"Hell or High Water" suggests a change may be brewing.
Some, like the brothers in the film, may be willing to fight back even if it means breaking the law and paying a price. I saw one review that damned the film as leftist propaganda but that's a little too simplistic an interpretation. Sure, there is a liberal slant to the view of banks as evil, but that's nothing new and not limited to just those on the left.
And these gun-toting brothers who are willing to kill to secure the financial future of Toby's kids don't exactly come across as Bernie Sanders' supporters. In fact, their reaction to their economic issues could even be seen as reflecting something of what Trump supporters seem to be feeling fed up with.
So rather than being left or right-winged, the film just seems to be capturing a snapshot of the general state of anxiety and unease in the country.
It is using genre trapping to reflect some social realities much in the same way as 1960s and '70s films like "Easy Rider" or "The Last Picture Show" did. It is refreshing to see a film where characters throughout the film are well developed, where good and bad is not black and white, and where social realities are not sidestepped for make a more palatable commercial product.
"Hell or High Water" is a throwback to the gritty, indie films of the 1970s. It leaves you with plenty to think about and savor after the credits roll. And plenty to appreciate.
Look for my Cinema Junkie Podcast 86 on Saturday featuring interviews with MacKenzie and Birmingham.