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"HELL OR HIGH WATER"
(2016) (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Two brothers start robbing small banks to get enough money to save their late mother's farm.
PLOT:
Toby Howard (CHRIS PINE) is an unemployed and divorced father of two who's recently gone through his mother's long illness and death. To make matters worse, a local bank is preparing to foreclose on her farm, and Toby would like his family's pass down generational poverty to end with his sons to whom he's bequeathed the land. Needing money to beat that foreclosure, Toby enlists the aid of his more impulsive and short-tempered brother, Tanner (BEN FOSTER), who has a long criminal record that includes serving ten years in prison.

While Tanner has no love lost for his late parents, he loves his brother and agrees to help him rob various branches of the bank behind the upcoming foreclosure. Taking only small denominations, the two have knocked off a number of banks, actions that have drawn the interest of Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (JEFF BRIDGES) and his partner, Alberto Parker (GIL BIRMINGHAM).

Marcus is about as politically incorrect as they come -- including toward Alberto -- but his intuition and experience give him a strong hunch about where the next robbery might occur. As they stake out that place, Toby and Tanner indeed plan to hit that branch, but a change of plans leads to series of escalating confrontations that will forever change the lives of those involved on both sides of the law.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
There's no such thing as easy screenwriting or filmmaking in general. Sure, it might be easier adapting some sort of pre-existing story -- be that a novel, TV show or previous movie -- than in coming up with something original. That, of course, is because at least the groundwork (and usually much more) for some characters and/or material has already been laid. But there's really no such thing as an original idea anymore as just about every story type and variation thereof has already been done before.

Just think about how many haunted house type horror movies, mismatched buddy flicks, romantic comedies, swords and sandals epics, dystopian future thrillers and more that you've seen hit the big screen over the years. That's why Hollywood pitches such as "Die Hard in the White House" are easy to sell because they're easy to picture as we simply take what we already know about the previous offering and then imagine it in another setting with a similar scenario.

Along those lines, we've seen plenty of movies about bank robbers, good and bad siblings who work together to accomplish a goal, and gruff larger than life lawmen who pursue the bad guys. Stick those three elements together and you could easily have a forgettable "B" level movie due to a variety of reasons but mainly because it would seem like nothing more than the "same old, same old."

The fun and occasional brilliance occur when someone puts enough of a creative spin on such traditional and well-worn cinematic tropes that everything ends up feeling fresh and engrossing. And that's exactly what screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, director David Mackenzie and actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham have managed to do with "Hell or High Water."

It's a modern day western with plenty on its mind, great performances, a crackerjack script, taut direction and superb tech credits that have made it -- eight months and change into 2016 -- my number one film of the year. Yes, it's that good, and regardless of what else might arrive before the end of the year, expect plenty of award nominations for this film and those who worked on it.

It's particularly impressive considering we've seen most if not all of it and its various parts before. Pine and Foster play disparate brothers in rural Texas that's been decimated by jobs in the small towns that dot the land having all but dried up. Both through visuals and direct dialogue, Mackenzie and Sheridan have no problem pointing out the economic divide and corporate greed behind that. And in desperate times come desperate men doing desperate deeds.

In this case, Pine plays an unemployed, divorced father of two who's seen firsthand what pass down generational poverty does to its victims and wants to stop that before his sons fall prey to its nasty grip. Having found oil on the farmland he's inherited from his late mother, he wants his boys to benefit from the Texas tea that's about to be served. The only problem is that predatory banks are about to foreclose on the property due to his mom's reverse mortgage, late fees and so on coming due.

His plan is to rob a bunch of that very bank's smaller branches of small bills in order to pay off those debts, but the only problem is he has no experience in such matters. Enter his brother (Foster) who has a rap sheet a mile long and plenty of time behind bars. He's eager to help, not because he liked their mother (he didn't) or really cares about his nephews. Instead, it's partly because he loves his brother, but he loves the thrill of the notion of being a bank robber even more.

Of course, with crime comes the law, and that's the cue for Bridges playing a widowed, wily and racist Texas ranger who often makes derogatory comments about his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner (Birmingham). He does so, however, with such a sparkle in his eye and in such a light-hearted manner that you're never sure if he really feels that way or just enjoys hazing his much younger other half. Alberto throws it back his way as well without losing his cool (as if he's heard all of this for years) that you could just watch these two bicker this way for two hours and be fully satisfied. Bridges is a shoo-in for yet another Oscar nomination, and the work from his co-stars is terrific from start to finish.

The same holds true for the screenplay that's filled with great dialogue, as well as Mackenzie's direction that easily segues from family drama, social expose, hard-hitting action and comic relief with utmost aplomb. The editing is tight, the score just right and the cinematography is wonderful. As is the interaction between the two sets of men, and finally between representatives from both sides (in a brilliant if subdued showdown), all in true old-fashioned western form, albeit with modern touches.

While I wasn't expecting much going in, I loved every minute of "Hell or High Water" and if you love to watch smart, engaging and well-made movies, you probably will too. The film rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed August 1, 2016 / Posted August 12, 2016


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