By Esosa Omo-Usoh
A good movie leaves you with the experience of having read a really good book visually represented on celluloid. Hell or High Water played like a story book with every nuance of the characters’ lives concisely written to the finest details, their souls shorn off painted-on pretence and glamour and laid bare in stark and gritty reality. The landscape against which their lives played out was dusty and gray; a fitting complement to their sordid existence in the punishing reality of poverty and the instinctual need to survive, by any means necessary.
In Waylon Jennings’ opening verse of their classic song; “Born and raised in black and white”, the Highwaymen almost captured the life story of the lead characters in Hell or High Water;
“The wind blows hard across the Texas Plains
Makes some people go insane
While others quietly pray for rain
That’s where we came from
Two boys playing in the burning sun
One with books, one with guns
Mama calls but just one comes
The other one runs”
Only in Hell or High Water; they both play with guns but one thinks with brains. Two brothers; Toby (played by Chris Pine) and Tanner (played by Ben Foster) Howard born of an abusive dad and a not-so-loving mother are raised in poverty (apparently, one so biting that Toby describes it as a disease passed on from generation to generation). One brother does time for killing their abusive father and the other inherits their mother’s ranch upon her demise. However, the ranch is days away from being foreclosed by the bank.
Determined to free his ex-wife and estranged son from the shackles of continuing poverty by saving the ranch from foreclosure, younger brother, Toby, comes up with a plan to rob some branches of the foreclosing bank in order to raise the cash needed to stop the foreclosure. Older brother, Tanner, fresh from jail and looking to unleash his inner demons, is all on board with the plan.
The first bank they hit in the opening scene sets the tone for their movie-length caper; seemingly random, chatty, hurry- up-and –gimme-the cash and guns a-blazing but with a method and purpose to it. Two moments of unintended hilarity stand out in this first scene.
The first one; An old timer customer walks into the bank soon after the brothers hold the bank clerk hostage at gun point. One brother asks him if he has a gun and he replies matter-of-factly “Damn right I got a gun”. When they are done robbing the bank and make their exit, the old timer picks his gun off the counter where they had dropped it and lets off a series of rounds at them as they drive off.
The second one; The bank clerk is questioned by the police as to the racial identity of the robbers “black or white?” and she deadpans “Their body or their soul?”.
Whilst the brothers go on their robbing spree across one-horse Texas towns, the job of trailing and capturing them is left to 2 odd-couple Rangers; Marcus Hamilton (played by Jeff Bridges) and his half-breed Native American partner, Alberto Parker (played by Gil Birmingham). The former is days away from retirement and the latter is the sparring partner for his racially insensitive jabs.
For all his seeming lethargy and crude jibes at his partner, Ranger Marcus quickly discerns a pattern and method to the brothers’ seemingly random choice of bank to stick-up. His partner is not sold on his theories but trudges on with him nonetheless.
Hell or High Water is not so much a Whodunit as it is a Theydunnit. The cards are pretty much laid bare from the get go as to the identity of the robbers. The Whydunnit becomes clear towards the end of the movie and leaves you not so much conflicted as you can empathize with the mindset of the brothers.
But the thing that ensnares you is the gritty reality the movie projects. It tells its tale without the glitz and glamour of Vaseline-glazed lens. It confronts the viewer with bare naked poverty both literally and literarily. The impact is visceral. You see it etched on the faces of the characters and pock-marked on the landscape.
As Toby, Chris Pine finally got the chance to prove his acting chops. His intense brooding mien was a departure from the blue-eye pin-up pop star characters he has previously played. In Hell or High Water, Pine’s Toby was a man down on his luck, pushed to the wall with nowhere to go but down the road against the law in a death fight for survival. The dark pall cast on his visage by the circumstance of his existence and the bent on his shoulder brought on by the responsibilities weighing on him were eloquently captured by Chris Pine. He was the brains behind the robbery spree but he was also the conscience trying to tone down the violence in order to avoid casualties.
As Tanner, Ben Foster was a beautiful revelation. He was a study in contained violence unleashed to the rhythm of necessity tinged with an innate disposition towards borderline psychosis. His enjoyment of the heists was as much about fending for his family as it was about relishing the ability and opportunity to unleash mayhem.
He was two faces of the same coin and 6 sides of the same dice. While for Toby, the end justified the means, for Tanner; the means was the thrill of the ride. But for all his brashness and bravado, a noticeable humaneness lurked underneath. It was deliberately buried in order not to betray weakness. For a fleeting moment, it reared its head in the scene when he changed their escape plan after the final heist and told his younger brother “I love you”. And just as quickly, it disappeared.
As he had previously shown in True Grit, nobody plays grizzled laconic with a generous spread of political incorrectness and just about a tinge of disguised melancholia better than Jeff Bridges. In Hell or High Water, he reprised his well-honed art to a restrained but impressive turn.
Hell or High Water is a brilliant and unpretentious movie. It makes gritty realism less art and more a state of being. It will leave you feeling like you have just read a hard-hitting story in a well-written book. It is a triumph of non-pretentious but true-to-the-art cinema.