Hell or High Water (2016)

by Matt Piucci

Hell or High Water is a modern Western that features my favorite working American actor, Jeff Bridges. I tend to like any decent Western and this is better than decent for a number of reasons. The story is simple - cops chasing robbers - but quality acting, cinematography and good direction (for the most part) and especially a taut script makes this a worthwhile film. It also features two actors who have remarkably similar life paths (Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine) and one wonders whether this film could serve as a passing of the torch between generations of actors. Both men grew up in Hollywood and are the sons of famous TV actors who had very successful shows (Lloyd Bridges’ "Sea Hunt" and Robert Pine’s "ChiPs").

For me, it did not get off to a great start - as the tone and groundwork are set for the hard scrabble West Texas it portrays, the film is somewhat ham-fisted in its attempt to make sure we are aware of the desperation of that time and place. In the first shot, we see a beat up late 70’s model Camaro, probably the worst era for American cars, speed through the alleyways of a dusty, dried-up desert town. We know immediately where we are and the danger of its possibility, so a shot of a run-down building with graffiti complaining about bailouts and tours of duty in the military was unnecessary. Within the next three minutes, several prominent billboards touting debt or foreclosure relief pop up in what is essentially a chase scene. OK, we get it.

The film rises above mild doses of clumsiness through excellent performances and the manner in which it pays thematic, but not tonal homage to the best American films of the 1970’s. This was when maverick directors broke free from the Hollywood studio system, and among others things began blurring the lines between good and evil, as more nuanced and “real” characters emerged. The two main characters here pitted against one another are simple guys and fairly likeable. Jeff Bridges plays a widowed Texas Ranger who is weeks away from his mandated retirement and does not appear prepared to leave. As his sidekick and partner Alberto says “what are you gonna do without someone to outsmart?” Alberto is ably portrayed by Gil Birmingham, but he is somewhat of a cliché, with a nod again to TV–a Native and Mexican American Ranger who engages continuously in fairly racist banter with Bridges (the instigator, for the most part) - much like Hank and Gomez, the two FBI agents from "Breaking Bad", also set in the West Texas/New Mexico area. It is not as annoying as it could have been as Alberto gives as good as he gets. He also gets in one of the best lines of the film when he and Bridges are mid banter and discussing the bank robbers they are chasing, driving through yet another desolate dusty vista. He says something like – "150 years ago this land belonged to my people and it was stolen from them, now it’s being taken from those people who stole it from us" – referring to the bankers who had foreclosed on what seems like half the properties in the film.

Chris Pine plays Bridges’ foil here, a decent divorced loser with no criminal record, down on his luck and who has decided to steal a very specific quantity of cash from the same bank that has screwed his recently deceased mom out of her only asset, her ranch. The ranch is sitting on a fair amount of oil and he intends to steal just enough of the West Texas Midlands Bank’s money to cover the foreclosure and tax bill for his mom’s ranch, and then place the property in a trust for his sons so that the asset would be untouchable should he get arrested. His plan is well conceived as he is only stealing loose cash (not packets) that he and his crazy brother then launder through a casino to make it look like winnings and thus untraceable, with cashier checks made to the same bank. He definitely fits the bill of the Bob Dylan line “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

Pine’s character enlists the aid of his fairly insane older brother, played with gusto by Ben Foster. Foster’s character has recently returned from a ten-year prison stint for murdering their abusive father. Clearly, this guy is not in the game for the all of the noble reasons his little brother is, although there is real chemistry between them and they do appear to love one another. Although I believe that Bridges’ character is the protagonist, it is Pine’s character that makes the movie. If there is a clear evil here, it is the banks that have destroyed the economy and lives of the people who live in the area, and there are several rich characters that appear briefly in the film who really drive this point home. A waitress who asks what you don’t want, because no one ever orders anything but steak, or a rancher driving his cattle away from a fire that the lawmen won’t even bother calling in because “there is no one to call.” Or Pine’s slightly less than upstanding attorney, who tells him- “I can’t think of anything more Texas than using the bank’s own money to pay them back.” These gritty minor characters fill out the film and make it special, and again back to "Breaking Bad"- the actor who portrays the shady attorney is the same man who plays Uncle Jack’s Nazi sidekick (Kevin Rankin) in BB.

So the film shows plenty of support for Pine’s wacky plan to pay back the bank with its own money. He wants them to only rob small branches without cameras, and only during the early morning when few people are there, insisting that his uncontrollable brother not hurt anyone, with varying degrees of success. As one might imagine, things don’t always go according to plan. So the real moral arc here is that of Bridges’ character. Here he is, on the edge of tomorrow, looking to give the end of his career something meaningful and perhaps an extension. And will he have sympathy for the outlaw whose quest is at least noble in the abstract?

Permit me a small digression. The film is supported, and hampered in my view, by the relentlessly sparse minor key instrumental background music, composed and performed by Nick Cave, a man with great ‘miserablist’ credentials. This seems to be endemic in modern film, the overuse of music to set mood. There are obligatory outlaw/lonesome cowboy tunes by Townes van Zandt (the king of miserable drunk country) and the original outlaw country guy Waylon Jennings. The only song in a major key is the beautiful “I’m not Afraid to Die” by Gillian Welch. I think the song’s title excuses the use of a happier sounding key. I do like all of the music, but the film seems overly beholden to the modern Chris PineHBO-style of forcefully sad soundtracks, e.g., both seasons of "True Detectives".

The ultimate irony of Pine’s quest for success is that there is no way the bank from which he has stolen $40,000, which he then pays them to get his mother’s property back, is going help prosecute the owner of land that is pumping oil money back into their bank. Pine’s attorney suggests that he use the very bank from which he stole to manage his sons’ trust, ensuring their silence.

The ending of the film was excellent and I won’t reveal that here, except to say that the expected confrontation between the two does happen and the way it plays out was quite satisfying and in keeping with the thematic nod to those 70’s films. It remains to be seen whether Pine will become the Bridges of his generation, but I think he has a chance. In my view, Bridges’ greatest work started when he was about the age of Pine (36), when he did the "Fabulous Baker Boys" and then the brilliant "Fisher King" a few years later. Bridges and Pine both appear quite at ease in front of the camera and have likeable and believable characterizations throughout the body of their work. I am rooting for Pine to make those risky filmic choices that Bridges made and am looking forward to the future of his career. He took on Captain James Kirk, as iconic a figure in the American TV/Filmic lexicon, and he did very well with it. I will be watching him.

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