Hell or High Water.
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
"Hell or High Water" is a thrillingly good movie--a crackerjack drama of crime, fear, and brotherly love set in a sun-roasted, deceptively sleepy West Texas that feels completely exotic for being so authentic. The film opens, as so many underworld sagas have, with a bank robbery. At a Texas Midlands branch in the middle of a flyspeck town, two guys in ski masks wave their guns around and grab the cash from behind the teller windows. One of them, it's clear, is a wild boy who's enjoying the robbery a little too much. As they race off in their getaway car--a sporty scuzzmobile that seems to be advertising the fact that they're crooks--we think we're watching a pop genre movie about violent losers who are too reckless for their own good.
But "Hell or High Water" settles into something quite different. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers, and in their minds they have damn good reason to be doing what they're doing. They're low-rent bandits, but they're also richly drawn human characters whose every twist and turn is rooted in what happens in the real world. "Hell or High Water" merges the excitement of a crime-spree noir with a haunting undertow of family history and destiny. Directed by David Mackenzie, from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote "Sicario"), it's a gripping independent production that, with its fusion of offbeat star power and audacious storytelling, has the potential to be a mainstream hit, and possibly an awards contender.
Chris Pine, with his moody sleek glamour and blue bedroom eyes, has struggled to find serious dramatic roles that fit him as snugly as Captain Kirk, and this one is undoubtedly his breakthrough. As Toby, who's divorced with two kids he hasn't seen for a year, Pine is playing a sexy bad boy with some mileage on him, and he's quietly mesmerizing. Toby knows how to spring into action, but his downbeat look expresses the pain of every mistake he's ever made. Ben Foster, wearing a biker 'stache and a spooked stare that dares you to stare back, makes Tanner an even badder boy, a thief who has spent years in prison and doesn't have the patience--or faith--to go straight. He's a sociopathic screwup who knows he's a screwup (which sort of redeems him).
As it turns out, the robberies are all Toby's idea, and he has planned out their logistics with great cunning. The two will hit a series of Texas Midland branches, always early in the morning, restricting themselves to unmarked bills lifted from the register. More clever: They've amassed a handful of cars, and after each robbery they drive the getaway vehicle into a pit already dug in the back of the family ranch, and bury it.
The reason Toby has thought this all out with such awesome ingenuity is that he's desperately motivated: Texas Midlands is about to foreclose on that ranch. The film's implication is that in the new, corporate-driven, triumph-of-finance-culture America, the bank just wants to gobble up property. It's not there to help, it's there to steal, albeit legally.
To heighten suspense, Jeff Bridges shows up as Marcus, an aging Texas Ranger who's the smartest guy in any room, but will never let you see it. He's the sort of detective who succeeds because he knows how to think like the criminals he's chasing.
Mackenzie, the Glasgow-based director of "Starred Up," takes to the grittiness and sprawl of West Texas as if born to it, and Sheridan's script is full of lines that snap ("Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house!" says Marcus, spying a bank manager he wants to question).
Toby and Tanner are on a collision course with the law and with each other, but "Hell or High Water" doesn't go where you expect. The movie channels the adrenaline of crime, but it's also a moral drama that takes the measure of each destabilizing action it shows us.
CREDITS: A CBS Films, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Oddlot Entertainment presentation of a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Film 44, LBI Entertainment, Oddlot Entertainment production.
Produced by Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn. Executive producers, Gigi Pritzker, Bill Lischak, Michael Nathanson, Rachel Shane, John Penotti, Bruce Toll.
Co-producers, Kathryn Dean, Dylan Tarason, Mark Mikutowicz. Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Camera, Giles Nuttgens; editor, Jake Roberts; production designer, Tom Duffield; costume designer, Malgosia Turzanska; music, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; casting, Richard Hicks.
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16,2016.
Running time: 102 MIN.
CAST: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon