It seems like every year, Indy Film Fest has one film that completely blows me away. Last year, it was the critically acclaimed Tangerine, which became known as the iPhone film but was, in fact, just a damn good film that ended up in my Top Ten films for 2015.
This year? It's the remarkable West Texas set crime thriller starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, misfit brothers living in a deceptively sleepy Texas town who find themselves in a rough spot after their mother dies and the semi-local Texas Midlands Bank is on the verge of repossessing not only the family home but the land where oil has just been discovered.
Chris Pine's Toby is seemingly the more grounded of the two, though his marriage has fallen apart, his job gone out the window and it has been a couple of years since he's seen his kids. He's a fuck up, but he knows he's a fuck up and he's determined to do something right for his family no matter what it takes.
Foster's Tanner, on the other hand, has spent half his life in prison and pretty much the other half doing whatever it takes to go back there. He's always a little unhinged, though not completely in a bad way. He's got a conscience. He just can't seem to help himself. Being bad, it would seem, feels good.
It's actually Toby who hatches the well thought out plan. The brothers plan to hit only Texas Midlands Banks and always first thing in the morning. They'll only snag the unmarked bills already in the registers and they'll clean the money at a nearby casino. They've even dug a pit outside the back of their home where they ditch their getaway cars after each job.
Originally shot under the name Comancheria, Hell or High Water opens in limited release on August 12th with CBS Films before going into wide release, including Indianapolis, on August 19th.
Of course, Hell or High Water wouldn't really be a crime thriller unless a little suspense came along and it does in the person of Marcus, a Texas Ranger a couple of weeks ago from mandatory retirement whose slow Southern drawl can't mask the fact that this is a lawman whose been everywhere and seen everything. Played by Jeff Bridges, doing his best work since picking up the Academy Award for Crazy Heart in 2010. Bridges has played characters like Marcus before, but Bridges has never played characters like Marcus like this before. Bridges' Southern drawl here is so Southern and so slowly paced that his insults sort of do such a slow roll off his tongue that you can practically catch them. While you might be tempted to think Marcus is a slow, worn down lawman, the truth is by the time everyone else has collected all the evidence he's already figured out exactly what's going on. Working with his Comanche sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham) by his side, who seems to catch most of his horribly racially stereotyped yet strangely affectionate insults, Marcus catches on when Tanner spontaneously deviates from the very precise plan and leaves a trail to be followed.
If you didn't know that director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) was a native of Glasgow, Scotland, you'd swear he's a good old Texas boy himself given his spot-on natural instincts and ability to infuse Hell or High Water with the kind of smalltown Texas culture that turns decent crime thrillers into mighty fine ones. Working from a script by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, Mackenzie manages to explain the Texas gun culture, in both serious and rather humorous ways, far better than any ole' politician ever could.
Chris Pine, whom I will confess I've never been quite sure would truly make that transition to "actor" despite clearly stretching himself, has finally convinced me. Pine's Toby has a sort of sexy Southern boy thing going on, though it's grizzled and worn and resigned and rather emotionally wrought whether trying to make some sort of human connection with his sons or reflecting on his mother's final days. In order for Hell or High Water to truly work, both Pine and Foster have to be believable as brothers and as bad guys who really aren't quite that bad. There's sort of an early 20th century ethos about them that makes it clear that while they're out to get what they consider to be rightfully theirs, they're not about to take from others in the same situation.
Alongside Pine's likely career best performance, Ben Foster adds some mighty fine nuances to a character who could have been portrayed as nothing but a scuzz. There's a wink of humanity here that occasionally surfaces, a glimpse of the human being Tanner tries to be but can never really get there. He's a believable brother to Tanner whose sense of familial duty guides much of what unfolds here.
Gil Birmingham basically plays straight man to the wittier and more sarcastic Jeff Bridges, though it's a joy to watch his facial expressions every time Bridges lobs another insult his way. In some ways, their relationship is an awful lot like that of Tanner and Toby with that same sense of loyalty and responsibility.
Hell or High Water features what is likely the year's best original score so far, an earthy and eclectic mix of action and emotion from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The lensing by Gils Nuttgens is breathtakingly beautiful at times, while being in-your-face and taut other times.
Unquestionably one of the best films of 2016, Hell or High Water benefits greatly from an ensemble cast that acts like an ensemble cast and avoids any showboating. In its place, you have simply a terrifically written, magnificently directed and thrillingly acted film that deserves to be remembered come awards season.
If you're in Central Indiana, you can see it a good month before its theatrical release. For more information on Indy Film Fest, visit the festival's website for the screening on July 22nd at 7pm at the Toby Theatre inside the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic