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Foster (left) and Pine are the two down-and-out brothers who are partners in crime in Hell or High Water.

A thinking man's modern Western

Oct 28, 2016 5:50 AM

TWO desperadoes rob a small-town bank in West Texas early one morning, then drive to a nearby town and repeat the deed. The early bird catches the extra worm, it seems: by hitting banks at opening time and taking only small-denomination bills from the tills, these crooks are limiting their chances of getting caught. The only problem is, they need to rob several banks to chalk up the amount they need.

Hell or High Water is a thinking man's modern Western, a slow-brewing film that is perfectly in tune with the parched landscapes, recession-ravaged small towns and Stetson-wearing cowpokes it portrays. It's both a chase film and a morality tale of sorts, but the line between the good and bad guys is harder to define than in cowboy-and-Indian movies of decades past. And that makes it a lot more interesting.

The film, directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote Sicario), follows two down-and-out brothers and the good ole' boy Texas Ranger who has his own ideas about how to catch them. Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) may be partners in crime but they couldn't be more different.

Toby needs to raise about US$40,000 to prevent the bank from foreclosing on the family ranch, which - for reasons that will become clear - is worth a lot more than the bank thinks it is. The divorced dad was born and raised in poverty and he doesn't want his two young sons to end up like him, so he hatches the plan to secure their future.

Tanner, a sociopathic ex-con, just enjoys robbing banks and bopping innocent victims on the head with his pistol, or worse. Somehow, brotherly bonds and common objectives keep these boys one step ahead of the law. The plan involves driving across the Oklahoma border to launder the stolen money in casinos on Indian reservation land.

Meanwhile, soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges in full drawl) and his half-Comanche deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) spend most of the film following the brothers' trail, jawing about everything and nothing and waiting for the robbers to commit their next heist. Not surprisingly, both sides end up biting off more than they can chew.

The vast landscapes and small, slow-moving Texas towns littered with "For Sale" signs seem indifferent to the activities around them but they also help to evoke an earlier, simpler way of life - when a man did what a man had to do without having to worry about things like reverse mortgages.

There's a trace of the Coen brothers and a smidgen of Butch and Sundance in Hell or High Water but imitation, in this case, is a good thing. The narrative is predictable in parts - there will be blood - but doesn't go exactly where you think it will; the dialogue (once you decipher the accents) is gritty and real and the acting is uniformly good.

A scene where the brothers enter a bank that's crowded with customers is both poignant and humorous - a commentary on the gun culture that plagues and defines American society. This film takes its time but it holds our attention with just the right amount of sassiness and swagger - for that, it deserves a tip of the cowboy hat.

Rating: B