Hell or Highwater Film Review


I watched “Hell or Highwater” while simultaneously reading the script. The director and/or the film editor cut a lot from the screenplay to shorten the film to 102 minutes, and I think some of the cut scenes might have enriched the film, nonetheless it succeeds, and it won considerable favor with both critics and audiences (97% and 88% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes). As a Texan, I loved the depiction of the dying oil towns in the barren, windswept prairies of Northwest Texas and bordering Oklahoma, and the characters as portrayed fit right in. The main actors, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, playing the bank robber brothers, Toby and Tanner, and Jeff Bridges, playing the Texas Ranger sheriff, Marcus, performed great characterizations of their assigned roles. The film captivates your attention from start to finish, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde set in about the same place but with loving bank robbing brothers (sort of) instead of bank robbing lovers. We’ve seen the character of Marcus, the aging Texas Ranger sheriff on the cusp of retirement, before, and as fine a performance as Jeff Bridges delivered, Tommy Lee Jones, with a superior story, tops him as an aging Texas sheriff on the cusp of retirement in No Country for Old Men. Marcus is a curmudgeon, humorous, hard drinking racist who needles his “half-breed” Mexican/Native American deputy sheriff, but I didn’t feel much sympathy for him, so you end up rooting for the bank robbing brothers, who after all are robbing the bank chain that is stealing the land that their departed mother owned, and that land has oil on it, offering a solution for Toby’s desire to provide for his sons who live with his ex-wife. The evil bank stealing land from poor prairie folk takes a page from The Grapes of Wrath, but it delivers the reliable dramatic convention of the poor versus the corporate system, and a raison d’etre for all the bank robbing. The screenplay delivers faithfully on all points that a good screenplay must possess. We’re clear on what Toby wants, and the obstacles he faces, which include his risk-taking, once-jailed wild brother, Tanner; the Texas Rangers led by the wizened Marcus; and of course, the bank that wants to steal his dead mama’s land. I liked the film along with everybody else but here is what I noted that doesn’t work so well with the film. After Tanner dies at the sure-shot from Marcus, Toby escapes, and the subsequent lame explanation in the Texas Rangers’ office demonstrates that everyone is a dumbass except Marcus because they believed Toby had an alibi and no criminal record. And by the way, wouldn’t the Rangers have told Marcus they could not share case information with him now that he was retired and a private citizen? To reinforce the prior point, either the actor (Pine) or the director (David Mackenzie) decided (because it’s not in the script) that Toby would take a bullet in the Bonnie and Clyde shoot ‘em up as Toby and Tanner emerge from the last bank they rob (wow, the citizenry responded faster than the police!), but it was a great scene and Tanner’s crack during the getaway about the downside of “conceal and carry” for bank robbing was humorous, to which he adds poetic emphasis by scaring off the car chasin’ gun totin’ citizens with sprays from the assault rifle he probably bought from his friendly local gun show. Now, Toby probably would have had to treat that wound in a hospital, thus triggering suspicion, right? Well, charitably, we might conclude he treated it himself to evade capture. I could find other small quibbles but otherwise the film did not reach too far, and it provided great entertainment in a film landscape dominated with superheroes where super excessiveness is the new normal.

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