“Hell or High Water” came out in August last year and the previews made it look like a celebration of stupidity and bad behavior. So I was not motivated to see it in the theater.
But then, the Santa Fe New Mexican gave it four chilies (out of a possible four!) And then a friend I highly respect suggested I had really missed something, by not seeing it. Then it got nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. So, I checked on Netflix and it is now out on DVD. So I gave in and watched it at home. I was pleasantly surprised to like this Oscar nominee.
In this era of a perceived rural and working class uprising, this is a film that gets at some core economic issues, especially those facing rural, agrarian communities.
‘Hell or High Water’ Courtesy image
The story takes place in West Texas (though it was all filmed in New Mexico.) The main characters are two brothers anxious to keep the family ranch in the family.
They plan to hit several small town banks to raise the money to pay off the lien on the ranch. Despite these violent crimes, there appears to be no love lost in these small Texas towns for their victimized local banks. The movie portrays a new age for the great American Outlaw, where criminals are celebrated as folk heroes.
Chris Pine (Star Trek) plays Toby Howard, the younger brother, less violent and wiser than his ex-con brother Tanner, played by Ben Foster (Zobrist in Inferno). Their mother has died after a prolonged illness. Their father was killed in a “hunting accident” in the family barn—apparently the cause of Tanner’s ten-year tenure in prison.
Oil has been found on the property and the brothers intend to pay off the bank so the land can stay in the family. Toby plans to put the ranch in a trust for his two teenage sons who live with his ex-wife, Debbie (Marin Ireland). Other than the nobility of his purpose, crime will be the means to Toby’s goal.
Jeff Bridges has been nominated for his role in the film as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, just a few days shy of retirement from the force. His partner Texas Ranger, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is part Comanche and part Mexican, making him the butt of Hamilton’s rough teasing. The two of them arrive in West Texas from Lubbock, tasked with figuring out this series of bank robberies.
The script of Hell or High Water is tight and well balanced. Despite the bleak life portrayed in the region, the script injects humor where it is needed to make the story rise above. An example is the following, when Marcus interviews a bank teller:
Marcus Hamilton: “I know their faces was covered, but could you tell their race? Black, white?”