By Vincent Abbatecola
I’m sure you remember the first time you watched director Arthur Penn’s 1967 crime classic, “Bonnie and Clyde.” With the story of the two famous outlaws, played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beaty, we were transported back to the era of the Great Depression as two fugitives fell in love and robbed a series of banks. It was a thrilling time to join them on their quest to make names for themselves; and despite them committing these crimes, we couldn’t help but be on their side because of their goal to rise above the crippling financial situation the country was facing.
Director David Mackenzie captures a similar tone with his crime drama, “Hell or High Water.” With three great lead performances, an involving story, and tense direction, Mackenzie explores the tests the brotherhood between two criminals when confronted with the other side of the law.
Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) are Texas brothers who take to robbing banks in order to save their family’s farm from foreclosure. As their string of hold-ups progresses, they begin to be followed by Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively). With the rangers hot on their trail, Toby and Tanner will do whatever they can to evade the law and get the money they need to accomplish their task.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster exhibit a strong brotherly bond on screen that draws you all the more into their plights. The scenes they share together help in making this film as great as it is, and the brothers’ unbreakable connection that Pine and Foster display provide the film with its emotional power. What make their relationship so interesting are the differences in their personalities. Pine’s character is more level-headed and careful in how they carry out their robberies, traits that show the character’s responsible nature. In opposition, Ben Foster portrays a rowdy, reckless, and unpredictable individual whose actions put the duo in even more risk than they already are. It’s the differences in these brothers’ personalities that make their relationship more believable and has us wonder if their conflicting personas will jeopardize what they set out to do.
Jeff Bridges is an ideal actor to portray the role of an experienced Texas ranger. What works for his role is how he doesn’t portray his character as a rough-and-tough law enforcer who appears ruthless in making sure he brings his targets to justice, but instead plays his character as a more restrained individual. This allows us to sympathize with him more as he tries to make one last accomplishment in his position before his retirement. When you mix this with his interesting views concerning what’s happening around him and his humorous dialogue between him and his partner, you have the makings of a compelling character.
From the opening shot of the film, we know the movie will have its share of impressive camerawork. With cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, his methods for shooting the action-oriented scenes and more dramatic moments bring you into the story. As I watched the first few minutes of the film, the camera movements reminded me of the opening shot of David Cronenberg’s 2005 crime film, “A History of Violence,” which was photographed by Peter Suschitzky. Similar to that movie, Nuttgens uses a long take to follow a character, or characters, for a couple of minutes, creating a mood wherein we know something significant is going to happen. With this, we are instantly absorbed into the film as we wait to see what event will occur to kick off the story.
The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan takes an unexpectedly slower approach to the heist narrative, which works because it allows the film to explore the brothers’ relationship in between their bank robberies. As we go into detail about other aspects of their lives, we learn more about the stakes the brothers are up against, which encourages us to care more about the outcome of their job. In addition to learning about their lives, we are also given scenes that go in depth with how they plan out their methods for obtaining the money; so we not only learn about their personal selves, but also their thought processes for getting what they need.
Throughout the film, the narrative goes back and forth between the brothers and the duo of rangers, so we are also given a look into the relationship between the two lawmen and their perspectives of what they’re up against, and this all assists Sheridan’s story extend his study of brotherhood to the rangers. As the film goes on, you will spot some interesting similarities between the two sets of characters and will want to compare their actions and personalities throughout the film, all of which helps to deepen your understanding of these two duos.
As a director, Mackenzie shows he can take command of a film that’s very character-focused, but can also deliver the thrills when necessary. In the dialogue-driven scenes, he’s able to make us feel the compassion the brothers express towards each other, making us aware of the long-surviving bond they have, which keeps them going even when circumstances look their worst. And in the sequences displaying their encounters with the law, you can’t help but tense up as you fear for their safety. With the journey “Hell or High Water” takes you on, you couldn’t ask for more.
Final Grade: A