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Review: Hell or High Water

By Paul Sawchuk

Hell or High Water is advertised as “From the Writer of Sicario.” This, and it’s impeccable casting of Jeff Bridges, a spectacularly fun performance from Ben Foster and the grimmest Chris Pine you’ll ever see all adds up to a good all-American commentary heist film.

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Foster and Pine, respectively) are on a vengeful crime spree against a chain of local Texas banks who are attempting to foreclose on their deceased mother’s property after an unfortunate and costly illness. Toby looks to Tanner, a career criminal recently released from prison, to help orchestrate the scheme. On their tails are the buddy cop duo of future retiree Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who puts up with his superior’s race-baited insults.

Because the film is begging to be compared to Sicario in a lot of it’s marketing — writer Taylor Sheridan reportedly originally titled the screenplay Comancheria, which plays well into Sicario’s theme of displaced adjacent people’s relationship to American exceptionalism (Sicario and Mexico, Comancheria and Native American indigenous population) — it’s hard for me not to compare the two.

Whereas the writing is strong on both accounts — stronger in Sicario as director Denis Villeneuve took some liberties with the script by actually stripping segments out  — the direction is very different. I couldn’t help but feel where Sicario took Sheridan’s script and took an outsider observatory tone towards the story, Hell or High Water is too heavy-handedly invested in it’s characters and not enough in the politics. There are moments where Chris Pine or Jeff Bridges wax philosophical and our camera sticks with them too long to make sure we get the point. The overly classically western music, which is bared back to a folksy violin and guitar duet for the majority of the film, is almost hammy in how it enthuses its tone.

Villeneuve and Johan Johannsson injected a dread-inducing score over Sicario that drove a high level of tension over the film. While Hell or High Water’s director, David Mackenzie, attempts a similar visual tone for his film he doesn’t quite match the dreadful scale and tension, moreso playing Sheridan’s script as a beat-for-beat rendition of what was on the page where a more masterful director would interpret the proceedings. A well-written chase sequence that begins the third act of the film falls flat because it lacks tension. Our emotional attachment to the characters is well established with the story, but the film’s overall aesthetic hammers us over the head whereas there is room to further explore the themes of American corporations being held in such low regard and unaccountable by blue-collar workers. By over-highlighting the emotional beats of Hell or High Water, the political leanings are simply sidelined dialogue from secondary characters.

Hell or High Water is still one of the better films out at the tail end of the summer, but I just find much of its over-reliance on emotional connections through the music and the lack of tension and sometimes hammy acting — Jeff Bridges has fallen into a type of late, and as fun as it was to see in True Grit, I really miss “The Dude” — pushes it far from the same level as Sicario, and it comes all through the direction. The story, when it comes down to it, and a greatly restrained performance from Chris Pine alongside a fun, but bombastic, performance from Foster and Bridges elevate this to a good movie, not a great movie.

Hell or High Water screens nine times at The Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre throughout November. Visit firstontariopac.ca for more details. [S]