By George Haerle
For The Daily World
It wasn’t surprising following the release of “Hell or High Water” a few weeks ago that the local Riverside Cinemas hadn’t gotten it yet. It seemed like a small-audience, Oscar-bait contender that, although I wanted to see, was a movie I was perfectly content to wait for when it became available for a Redbox rental. But I admittedly was pleased when it showed up at our local theater, oddly late after its original theatrical release date — a pleasant surprise rather than a complaint. Movies such as “Hell or High Water” tend to open in a small amount of theaters that can take in much larger audiences per screening.
A pleasant surprise it was, as “Hell or High Water” is one of the better movies of the year.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play bank-robbing brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, respectively. Trying to pay off a mortgage on a family homestead that financially ruined their dead mother (and is sitting on a oil reserve), the brothers resort to robbing from the bank that brokered the shady mortgage to pay it off. In a last attempt of glory at his career’s end, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), go on the hunt for the outlaw brothers before they can hit another bank.
Does it sound like an old or classic western to you? Well it pretty much is, only set in modern-day Texas, which is portrayed very realistically and in some ways is not too different from modern-day Aberdeen, where economic depression lingers even on the highway billboards, and a little bit of the old West days still survive in the old ways of town folk, most of whom are carrying open or concealed side-arms. This presents a particular problem for the Howard brothers, as they have to contend with the itchy trigger fingers of locals who all want the same piece of the action that Ranger Hamilton performs dutifully. This adds a fascinating aspect to the movie, as the robberies they perform are presented just as dangerous for the both of them as it would be for any innocent bystander in the way of the Howards’ guns.
Jeff Bridges plays Hamilton as a bit of an old-fashioned, politically incorrect Texas Ranger you would imagine — complete with the same voice he did for the remake of “True Grit” — but is completely likable in his Jeff Bridges-sort-of-way.
Pine, as Toby Howard, is the sympathetic character of the film, whose reason for robbing banks is to give his poor family his mother’s ranch and the oil preserve it sits on. Toby Howard also insists they do not harm anyone in their process of robbery — something that doesn’t go as he hopes.
However, Ben Foster as Tanner is the standout performance of the film, playing a classic kind of Western outlaw who is partly despicable, partly charming and quite wild in his brash and reckless cowboy way of robbery. The brothers are really a ying and yang, with Pine’s Toby being reserved, brooding and having some kind of moral center to his actions, while Foster’s Tanner is the brash wild card who does what he pleases.
“Hell or High Water” successfully creates a well-developed cast of characters in an engaging story that could have just as likely been made a classic style Western instead of its modern setting. That’s not a complaint. by the way. Part of the awesome hook of this movie is that it presents itself with a relatively fresh and seldom-portrayed take on the genre. (The Coen brothers have already mastered Westerns in a modern setting with “No Country for Old Men” and — yes, I mean it — “The Big Lebowski.”
Some have called it the best picture of the year so far, an honor I still think goes to “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but I would be surprised if “Hell or High Water” wasn’t at least nominated for Best Picture of 2016.
“Hell or High Water” is currently playing at the Riverside Cinemas, 1017 S. Boone St. in Aberdeen.
George Haerle is a 2008 graduate of Aberdeen High and holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing for media and lives in Cosmopolis.