Somebody Wants to be Old School, Come "Hell Or High Water"

Somebody Wants to be Old School, Come "Hell Or High Water"

Now this is a movie for people that feel like America has left them behind. Hell or High Water is a well-crafted story that throws in some added commentary about a sickness in this country. That sickness (as one character describes it) is called being poor. The solution one brother (Chris Pine) comes up with to beat it? Rob banks.

But they don’t want to give this money back to the poor at large, they plan on investing in land that they can drill oil in, which will make sure one of the brothers’  kids won’t grow up without cash.  It’s like Robin Hood, but with nepotism. Their methods are occasionally violent, thanks to the jailbird brother (Ben Foster) who has a tendency to solve problems with violence. He’s been out of the big house for a year, which was “difficult”; when you watch him scare off people with an assault rifle, you’ll understand why.

As this all happens we follow a couple of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) investigating their crimes while trading insults at each other. Bridges’ barbs are a lot more racist (his partner is half Hispanic/half Native American) and begrudgingly amusing, while Birmingham has beef with how the system has ripped off rural folk. The commentary is more effective when it talks about how the big banks have screwed over the little guy than when it tries to equate those banks to white settlers that moved the Native Americans from their land. When you’re making an argument, you gotta make sure to filter out the bad points and leave only the good ones. 

You could say the way this movie depicts Texas as a financially depressed and racist hick-hole is stereotypical (one bystander expresses surprise the robbers aren’t Mexican, which got a concerning amount of laughs), but it’s well-made enough to make you overlook that. Foster and Pine are compelling as robbers and sympathetic as brothers, although I wish this short movie (around 100 minutes) would’ve devoted more time to financial hardships that were frequently alluded to. 

Bridges? He’s playing the old coot that he has beaten to death the last few years (True Grit, Crazy Heart, R.I.P.D.), which is to say that he does an excellent job with a familiar character. His role of Marcus makes him a stick in the mud of society, the kind of guy who proudly makes Mexican jokes the moment he runs out of Native American ones. Nowadays we would call that kind of person an asshole, but the movie spares him a little by merely portraying him as out of date. 

This is a very simple, yet effective storytelling that won’t command attention, but will slowly win you over. The actors all do what’s asked to support a story that has a clear end goal of getting you to side with the bad guys. You could argue the script (written by Taylor Sheridan) is a little preachy with its point of view and lacks the tension of Sheridan’s Sicario, but it’s outweighed by the workmanlike direction and good performances.

The only flaw here is that everything seems to come too easy. Outside of a very predictable gunfight that occurs during their final heist, the brothers’ plan comes together without any hitches that would up the tension and make things even more interesting. I get that the intention is to emulate the slow-pacing of a Western and put that in the modern day, but even cowboys had problems before the big gunfight at the end. 

In a way, maybe it’s appropriate that a movie so obsessed with the past follows it even when it hurts; usually antiquated things are left behind for a reason, but they’ll always hold an old school charm that you’ll find interesting.

Published by Jagger Czajka

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