‘Hell or High Water’ is a hot end to the summer

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Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie

Texas Ranger Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), half Native American, likens the plight of his people 150 years ago to the plight of thousands of recession-era Texans being forced off their land by the greedy banks that hand out loans expecting sky-high interest and quick turnarounds. Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) isn’t so sure about that. He just wants to catch the clever brothers that keep robbing small-town Texas banks, no matter their motive. But Birmingham is on to something—Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are doing exactly what he expects. They’re stealing from the banks to secure the future that the banks tried to take out from under them. They just have to make a clean getaway first.

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Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, coming off a sensational first effort in last year’s “Sicario,” finds the humanity and the humor in desperate times. “Hell or High Water” is about just a couple of good ol’ boys trying to make ends meet. But Sheridan also leaves a lot of open space for the film’s ensemble to work with. Intimidating stare-downs and periods of uncomfortable silence don’t feel like wasted time when Jeff Bridges is there. Harkening back to his “True Grit” days, Bridges retreads the familiar days-from-retirement, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit character in a way that you might not expect. It’s good. Giving the best performance of his decade long career, Chris Pine may also be the first person so far this year I can see making it on a Best Actor shortlist come Oscar season. He tones it way down as the quiet, stoic family man, while gracefully avoiding all those cowboy stereotypes. He and Ben Foster (who has a good time with the humor in Sheridan’s script) share a believable and enviable brotherly rapport.

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At only 100 minutes, “Hell or High Water” doesn’t have any fat to trim. There’s not a moment wasted. In fact, I could have done with some more time devoted to Jeff Bridges’ character, to see him develop. Despite the family dynamic of the brothers, Bridges’ character becomes the most intriguing one simply because you know so little about him. He leaves you wanting more. So does cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, using tracking shots that put us right in the middle of the bank robbery process. An Oscar nomination might not be as sure a bet as Roger Deakins’ nomination for “Sicario” was, but I wouldn’t be shocked—or angry.

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“Hell or High Water” is a commendable second effort from screenwriter Sheridan. While we’re inundated with big-budget summer sci-fi epics and animated spectacles, this Texas cops and robbers thriller tops them all with much less money and much more nuance.

8/10

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