‘Hell or High Water’ Is the Best Movie of the Summer, But Is There an Audience for It?

Hell or High Water trailer
Courtesy of CBS Films

Hell or High Water” is the movie that a lot of people say they’ve been waiting for this summer: the answer to the sequeled-out, stuck-in-a-rut, been-there, seen-those-awesome-FX, megaplex-formula blues. This one, despite some familiar elements (it’s about bank robbers, and one of the characters is a shrewd and wily detective), isn’t something you’ve seen before. It’s an original: bold and sharp, enthralling and true, a movie loaded with action that’s never just an “action movie,” full of hairpin twists and turns that are as organic as they are exciting.

The picture has a pair of performances at its center that are inspired enough to haunt you: Chris Pine and Ben Foster as good/bad brothers who team up to rob a series of small-town bank branches in West Texas, but with a motive so down-to-earth and compelling that the audience whispers to itself, “If I were in their shoes, would I do the same thing?” The fact that we’re encouraged to honestly ask that question lends everything that happens in “Hell or High Water” a different kind of urgency than what we’re used to. The film crackles with the intensity of fates that don’t feel very far removed from our own.

All of which makes “Hell or High Water” a contemporary version of that sacred exotic thing: a “1970s movie.” When we talk about the great movies of the ’70s, the kind that people say they wish they could see more of today, a handful of classic titles always spring to mind. It’s worth remembering, though, that in the years from 1970-75, what we think of as the New Hollywood wasn’t just defined by “M*A*S*H,” “The Godfather,” “American Graffiti,” “The French Connection,” “Cabaret,” “Mean Streets,” “Chinatown,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and a handful of other headline masterpieces. There were also a great many movies that were rough-hewn and audacious and vital and existed more along the outlaw fringes — like “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” or “Panic in Needle Park” or “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.” Movies that audiences had to discover.

The way into movies like that — the only way — is our intense connection to the characters, and that’s how “Hell or High Water” works. Early on, when Pine and Foster ride up to a bank branch in their crime-spree jalopy at 8:00 a.m., wearing ski masks, and terrorize the first two employees into the bank, and get away by zooming through dusty streets as cops with wailing sirens speed off in the other direction, we can feel our pulses quickening (always a good thing), and we think we’re watching a film about wild-boy criminals. One of them, Foster’s Tanner, does walk on the wild side — he’s an ex-con sociopath with a feral gleam, who views crime as a kick. But he doesn’t represent the film’s point of view.

That’s why “Hell or High Water,” charged and suspenseful as it is, isn’t a thriller. Its vision is aligned with Pine’s Toby, who has planned out this series of crimes, even though — intriguingly — he is not a criminal. He’s a moody screw-up with valiant instincts, and he has about one week to scrape together 50 grand to pay off the mortgage on his family’s ranch. If he misses the deadline, they’ll lose the property. What he and Tanner know, and no else does, is that oil has been discovered on the land. (Toby has an ex-wife and two sons, and this is going to be their ticket out of financial desperation.)

When you bust into a bank and shout obscenities and wave guns around, that’s a pretty out-there thing to do (it’s a thing that people do in the movies), but Toby and Tanner, in the midst of all that “Get your f—in’ face down on the floor!” bravura, only steal small bills out of the front registers, so the money can’t be traced. The idea, at least in Toby’s mind, is that the only victim of these crimes is going to be the bank. They’re not going to hurt anyone physically, and they’re not going to rip off individuals. Yes, it’s armed robbery, but the movie says, quite compellingly, “Admit it, if you felt like you had nothing and were doing this as the only possible way to secure your family’s future, the plan might start to seem…compelling.” That’s the way movies work: They cut through the conventional morality most of us live with every day to tap into our most dangerous dreams. Movies like this are reality-based fantasies.

The beauty of Chris Pine’s simmering, implosive, tinged-with-desperation performance is that he becomes a representative of all of our ambivalence. He communicates a desire to get that money coupled with a quiet, foreboding awareness that in a better world, this isn’t the way he would be doing it. Pine, in the “Star Trek” films, has always led with his snarky swagger (it’s a compliment, in my book, to say that he genuinely does seem like a chip off the old Shatner mystique), but away from that blockbuster zone, in dramas like “People Like Us” and “Z for Zachariah,” he has been a more uncertain presence. Here, for the first time, he’s in full command as both movie star and actor.

It helps — as it did Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — that his pin-up looks are shrouded in a droopy mustache and too many days of not shaving. He seems like a real-deal s—kicker, the kind of small-town hellion who lives in dive bars and diners and casinos, getting by on his looks and charm (tellingly, the film doesn’t spend one moment explaining his divorce, because it doesn’t have to — the answer is all in Pine’s presence). But Pine also does one of the trickiest things an actor can do, going right back to early Brando: He communicates a lifetime of quiet pain, the kind that slashes away at you from deep down, without ever enunciating it. Ben Foster, who has always been great, makes Tanner a pinpoint scoundrel, destined for no good (except that he dislikes himself so much that he’s willing to go right off a cliff in terms of what he’ll sacrifice), but the news here is Pine, who gives a fantastic performance.

The reason “Hell or High Water” is the very 2016 version of a 1970s movie is that even though it transcends being a genre film, it respects how much audiences today crave genre elements. The tersely witty and layered script, by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), is full of lines to savor, and the British director David Mackenzie stages it in a way that’s amazingly precise, yet that breathes with an understanding of how these men’s lives emerge right out of the expansiveness of the landscape. The movie, despite all the Stetsons in it, isn’t a Western, but it captures how the cowboy mentality is alive and kicking — in Toby and Tanner’s choices, in every civilian we see who carries a gun. (They all do.) The plotting of the crimes is immensely clever and satisfying on that amoral level that crime movies have always operated on, and Jeff Bridges’ performance as Marcus, the aging Texas Ranger who can just about sniff out what these boys are up to because he’s got the same animal instinct, is a testament to what an actor like Bridges can do when you give him dialogue that’s this coiled with cynical delight. Bridges’ closing gesture is sublime, a cocked-index-finger-in-the-air goodbye that, in the language of West Texan, speaks volumes.

What all of this adds up to is that “Hell or High Water” is a crackerjack piece of entertainment. It reaches back to the primal art-laced-with-kicks design of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which also put us on the side of bank robbers whose desperate panache made their spree seem somehow justified, until of course it didn’t. (They also had a crusty Texas Ranger on their tail.) Yet “Hell or High Water” also connects up to the most downbeat undercurrents of life in America today. That’s what gives the movie its ’70s flavor. It’s about poverty and insecurity, the gnaw of financial desperation, and the feeling that there’s no way out of it. Is that entertainment…or, to use another word I recoil from, is it “depressing”? (“Depressing” is a marketing-brand concept too. A negative one. It’s Hollywood’s view of the anti-blockbuster.) The appearance of “Hell or High Water” on the movie landscape in the last half of summer casts one thing into high relief: If people want to see movies like the kind they made back in the ’70s, then they have to be willing to see movies that reflect their lives, and to realize that those movies — just like our fantasy-fueled blockbusters — can be great escapes too.

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  1. Millie says:

    Ben Foster was the best thing that movie had to offer. He was the excitement, the action and the interesting complex character. You barely mentioned him.

  2. eaglesoar says:

    Great writing on this review. Normally wouldn’t see a movie like this but this review stimulates me to see what the writer is talking about. I agree on nowadays most movies aren’t intelligent ly or creatively put together.

  3. Susan Penn says:

    I love Jeff Bridges, but honestly disappointed with the movie. I found it dull and boring. The last line was the best because it was finally over.

  4. Rachel Marta Greenberg says:

    It’s really great to read your comments on Chris Pine’s performance in this movie. You described his character portrayal just as I felt it. I think he is a very under-rated actor who may finally get the recognition he deserves with this very fine film that reflects today’s political and economic climate. Chris is a movie star who is also a character actor. He submerges himself completely into his roles, looking and behaving differently in each film. His body language totally transforms. And you can see all he is feeling in those quiet moments by just looking into his eyes. All the actors were top notch. Well worth seeing more than once.

  5. My husband and I loved it. Love the sounds track. We are 64, we appreciate good acting and a good story.

  6. Michael Figus says:

    Does this have an audience? Yes, Democrats.

  7. Sean Kenedy says:

    Replying to Cadavra, I did! Not my first time in a movie and obviously, it wasn’t neither for the rest of the theater audience! Never the less, the theater manager couldn’t fix ‘Jeff Bridges’ s gravelly voice’ and neither the other lead actor’s ‘efforts in trying to sound like Texans’. As to the theater Manager’s respond regarding the actors and their dialogue’s in the film: “They got what you shot”. The popcorn was warm.

  8. Minute says:

    As voiced by others, There Is an audience for this film, If it were available. I’m disgusted that Ghost Busters is still taking up room in 3 theaters at my local AMC, and this film is only available 27 miles from my home. It’s worth the trip, but how many people will??

  9. Wow says:

    I understand that it’s a business but I can’t for the life of me understand why this movie is playing on so few screens.

    I saw it this past weekend and was blown away by it. I know everything’s relative but it’s as close to a “Perfect” movie as I’ve ever seen. When I checked the local 20-plex in one of the biggest cities in the US, it wasn’t playing on any of them and only finished 19th in its first weekend of release?

    Mind blown.

    People will see this movie if it’s available. Not at art-houses. Places like that are usually harder to find. With 2 or 3 movies playing on multiple screens in the cineplex Hell or High Water should be finding a home on more screens.

    I know nobody turns into a robot in it (sorry for the spoiler) but it’s incredibly (very simply) well done.

    There’s definitely an audience for this flick. They just need to be able to find it locally.

  10. Sean Kenedy says:

    I attended at the AMC theater over the week-end, throughout the film the audience was loudly complaining about the sound; It was very low and very hard to hear. Most importantly the actors in their efforts in trying to sound like Texans, were also very hard to understand their dialogue; especially Jef Bridges’ s gravelly voice. Please someone contact the director or producers and have them check out the problem.

  11. It should be pointed out that the economics as well as the technology of film distribution does not require wide releases or slow roll-outs for independent movies.

    And historically, as is the case with “black” films, majority moviegoers in the U.S. have a problem with films about poor white people.

    Mediocre family-friendly movies score better than films like “Maggie” or “Winter Bone”. Poor whites and uppity blacks film-going audiences do not want for its entertainment.

  12. Sue Monk says:

    Where is it plAying. We live in Oxnard California. I can’t find it anywhere close by showing it. We would go 50 miles either way to see come hell or high water

  13. I saw it Saturday morning. It is, IMO, the best picture of the year and I’ve seen a lot of films.

  14. Geo says:

    I saw it this weekend, it is excellent, and the theater was packed.
    But it is only playing on two screens in my city.

    Of course Suicide Squad is playing on about 30 probably, which is a sad commentary on tastes.

    • Jack Monte says:

      Exactly. They’ll never know if there’s an audience for it when it’s released so small. A perfect example if this is years ago with Closer. It was the only new film that weekend and released in LA and NY. Huge per screen averages opening weekend and a lot of advertising, people knew about the film. But the date they’ve been told it’s not playing at their local theater. Fast forward to the weekend they open wider and it doesn’t do well. People had moved on, given up looking, or decided to see the newer films that opened.

  15. Jamaica Knauer says:

    I’ve been waiting eagerly for this film for a few months, now, but was disappointed to see that it’s not playing in the city where I live, (at least not yet.). I can’t see it, and support it, if it’s not playing anywhere near me.

  16. Kt. says:

    Nevermind Brando, how about the most immediate predecessor for this genre backdrop: Warren Oates?

  17. Rudy Mario says:

    Hmmmm.
    Intend to watch it after seeing trailer. Now all the more after this article. Let us see if it is worth it.

  18. Ronnie says:

    So far, in limited release, it’s finding an audience. If the distributor continues a weekly slow roll out, it could find a larger audience. Or if they go wider just after Labor Day before Magnificent Seven opens, they may get the attention with good press as an Awards contender. I hope so as it is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

  19. frank deniro says:

    Inexcusable that you failed to include “The Last Picture Show” in your “headline masterpieces” from the New Hollywood era list.

  20. Cath says:

    I’m fairly sure it won’t play in my town. Movies like that, we usually have to wait for video which is a shame. I like going to the movies but I’d have to ride in a car two and a half hours to see this one, unless some miracle takes it to a town on 30 miles away.

  21. Jeffrey Peter Bates says:

    Terrific film! Pine’s “The Disease of Poverty” speech ranks with Henry Fonda’s (Tom Joad) “I’ll be there” speech in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Kudos to all involved.

  22. EricJ says:

    Yes, but back in the Gritty 70’s, we HAD to discover a “lesser” movie in theaters–There was no other choice.
    Nowadays, with half the arthouse theaters closed down, we just expect that something indie and unmarketable is just going to show up on Netflix (and Hulu, and Amazon…) anyway, instead of the “real” movies, whether we want it or not.
    Can’t say I don’t miss those days, in a way…

  23. Well, that’s the kind of reviews I love to read, as opposed to “the great me and my opinion” pieces I’m all too used to reading these days. Why, it’s like something from the 1970s. Thanks.

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