One of the indisputable highlights for me at Cannes this year was Hell or High Water, Scottish director David Mackenzie’s exciting and noirish bank robber thriller that was a rare American film competing in the prestigious Un Certain Regard sidebar. It didn’t win a prize but should have, and critical response was stellar. CBS Films releases the movie Friday, and as I say in my video review (click the above link to watch), it is a must see for fans of smart, intelligent filmmaking that mixes entertainment with something to think about. In fact, this movie in many ways really hits the political zeitgeist in this election season, inadvertently touching on issues right at the core of the campaign, particularly the war on the rigged system and the plight of those who feel left behind. As one nonplussed character says upon learning the local bank has been robbed, “that bank has been robbing me for the past 30 years.”
Plot-wise it is very intriguing, when the more cerebral Toby (Chris Pine) and his hothead ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) come up with a plan to save their family’s Texas land when the bank tries to foreclose, knowing oil has been discovered there. Without the money to fight the bank, they come up with a novel plan to rob a series of local branches in order to get enough cash to pay what their mother owed and save the property from foreclosure. That’s right, they are robbing the bank to pay the bank back with its own money. They aren’t out to kill anyone, but as is the case with so many crimes, things careen out of control. Hot on their trail is Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a crafty, Columbo-like veteran Texas Ranger who, with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), is determined to patiently wait until they can set a trap for these novice robbers who seem to be just one step ahead of them in the riveting game of cat and mouse Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) expert screenplay lays out.
This is one of those movies that doesn’t paint its bad guys in black and white but shades of gray. The two brothers are on the wrong side of the law, to be sure, but they are fighting a larger, even more dangerous force in society — one that preys on those who have hit hard times. There is no question this film raises issues that you might easily hear at a Trump or Sanders rally, and it has the potential to move past the norm of its genre into important territory, where it offers true food for thought in desperate times. This is the best screen work to date for Pine, who plays a sometimes-quiet guy who says more with silences than three pages of dialogue. He is smart and determined to outwit the bank for what he believes is truly fair and just. Pine is excellent. So is Foster as the unhinged part of the pair, but even though life has taken them down different paths, you can see the bond that was there.
However it is Bridges who, as usual, dominates every scene he is in and etches another memorable screen character, a man on the verge of retirement who has one last job. With faint echoes of Rooster Cogburn, Bridges makes Marcus a complete original and a kind of Southwestern detective we watch as he tries to crack the case in his own unique manner. Birmingham also is perfectly cast as his partner, and they have great chemistry between them. Special props to Margaret Bowman as a veteran diner waitress who shows how to steal a scene. She’s a hoot in her brief appearance.
There is a certain authenticity Mackenzie gets in this journey through the dusty backwater towns of Texas (though it was shot in New Mexico) and shows that a foreigner can have a real eye for what undeniably is a true American story. He’s made a great American film, one with real sleeper potential for late-summer audiences, and hopefully one that might be remembered come awards season. Producers are Sidney Kimmel, Carla Hacken , Peter Berg and Julie Yorn.
Do you plan to see Hell or High Water? Let us know what you think.