San Antonio Film Festival Retro Review: ‘Hell or High Water’

This is a reprint of my review from 2016, when I sat right behind Gil Birmingham and watched the awesome Hell or High Water, which made its Texas premiere at the San Antonio Film Festival.

It’s always a great surprise to stumble upon a movie that sounds like it might be okay…and it turns out to be really, really great.

Such was the case when I caught a screening of Hell or High Water at last month’s San Antonio Film Festival, produced annually by local film teacher and dedicated motion picture aficionado Adam Rocha.

Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who criss-cross the byways of West Texas, robbing small branches of the Texas Midlands Bank as they go. Their goal is to pay off the mortgage on the farm they inherited from their recently-deceased mother in order to secure a comfortable future for Toby’s two young sons.

Toby has a specific plan — to amass enough money in low-denomination, untraceable bills, and convert the cash into registered checks at a local Indian casino, effectively transforming the ill-gotten gains into legal tender that will be accepted by a lawyer. He is the more tightly-focused and methodical of the two; having spent months attending to his dying mother gave him the chance to contemplate and carefully construct his scheme.

Hotheaded Tanner, having been recently released from prison, is much more explosive, and their first heists are awkward and rather comical (“Ya’al are new at this, I’m guessin’,” says one of their unsurprised  victims).

Their awkward antics draw the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s been able to identify a pattern and thinks he knows where the culprits are going to hit next. Dragging along his less-than-enthusiastic deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), he hits the road, determined to stop this woebegone crime spree as his last gasp before his retirement.

English director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) does wonders with this material, summoning up the dusty, desperate environs of the Lone Star State as if he was born there. His work is reinforced by a surprisingly funny screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and excellent, sun-roasted cinematography from Giles Nuttgens.

As for the actors, Bridges’ Marcus is the type of role you’d expect the veteran to do in his sleep by now, but he still manages to surprise us with a layered, funny and touching performance. Birmingham is wryly humorous as the half-Mexican, half-Comanche deputy who lazily trades gibes with his playfully bigoted boss, for whom he obviously has a deep affection. Sheridan’s clever script is chock-full of such social commentary, but it goes down as easy as an icy cerveza on a blazing Texas afternoon.

Foster offers up another of his ticking time bomb characters, but Tanner also comes with feelings, so devoted is he to his brother. Pine, whose onscreen persona up until now has usually involved space travel, grabs the opportunity he was given with the career-changing role of the brooding Toby, and he really nails it.

Mackenzie and Sheridan (along with casting directors Jo Edna Boldin and Richard Hicks) also provide some wonderful vignettes from memorably quirky supporting characters…the everyday folk who work in the small-town banks and roadside gas stations and run-down motels.

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