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‘Hell or High Water’ an intense, morally ambiguous modern Western

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('Hell or High Water' Official Facebook Page)

(‘Hell or High Water’ Official Facebook Page)

“Hell or High Water” is a modern day Western dealing with the ramifications of a money-obsessed society.

Similar to Italian director Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”), who restylized the conventional tropes of a then precious American Western genre, with “Hell or High Water” Scottish director David Mackenzie reimagines the mythological symbols of the Western genre. Here he brings his own fresh and curious foreign perspective to the portrayal of lightly populated towns and empty wastelands of western Texas.

Complemented by a brilliantly original (and once blacklisted) screenplay from Taylor Sheridan, a visual palette of expansive terrains, stark facial expressions and glorious explosions captured through the cinemascope lens of British cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and an incredible cast of Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, this is the sleeper film that this summer largely left audiences waiting for.

“Hell or High Water” follows the story of two brothers attempting to perform a succession of small scale bank heists in order to pay off a reverse mortgage debt on their mother’s ranch before the local banks foreclose. Not satisfied with just obtaining the money from these heists, they come up with a plan to also steal money from the very bank trying to foreclose on the ranch.

Toby Howard (Pine), a divorced husband and estranged father, and his brother, Tanner (Foster), an adrenaline loving ex-convict, are equally complex characters who quickly reveal nuances of their personalities through their acts of robbery. While Toby is an amateur bank thief who commits a crime that he believes to be for the greater good of his family, Tanner has dabbled in burglary before and has less regard for conservative tactics and his own well-being after spending years behind bars.

However, it is during their more relaxed interactions while driving along winding roads or sipping beers behind the backdrop of a beautiful western sunset, that the audience can begin to appreciate their natural familial bond. Chris Pine delivers his most nuanced performance yet as a troubled father aiming to make up for past mistakes, and Ben Foster is equally captivating as he delves into the dark psychological mindset of the elder Howard brother.

Throughout the entirety of “Hell or High Water,” only a single cowboy appears on horseback. Nevertheless the movie at times revels in nostalgia as a hymn to the old Western, and by featuring veteran Western actor Jeff Bridges, Mackenzie further honors the genre.

Bridges plays soon-to-be retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, whose final assignment is to track down the mysterious duo who are hitting banks throughout west Texas, following their trail with his half-Comanche half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham). The duo of rangers spend a majority of their time looking yonder, waiting for something to happen, and discussing their theories on where the next bank robbery will occur.

Throughout the film, shared screen time between the rangers and Howard brothers is rare.  The fact that the rangers are primarily looking, waiting and talking never creates a dull moment as both Bridges and Birmingham exhibit a great chemistry bolstered by Sheridan’s witty dialogue.

“Hell or High Water” does right what many of the summer 2016 flops did wrong. It proves an intense, action-packed movie can be created for a greater purpose than pure spectacle alone. The film offers big laughs and thrills on top of an intellectually stimulating narrative about two brothers that were themselves corrupted by living in a world of corrupt financial institutions. The film’s moral ambiguity can provoke discussion on many of the highlighted issues from this year’s electoral campaigns, such as guns, race and corporate control.

“Hell or High Water” avoids the trap of putting spectacle over substance, and instead uses its strengths of witty dialogue, expansive cinematography and exceptional performances to provide a unique picture of contemporary rural America.

William Plotnick can be reached at [email protected].

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