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Hell or High Water

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have collaborated on a riveting piece of screen entertainment called Hell or High Water, a 2016 Best Picture nominee that is a little bit crime drama, a little bit character study, a little bit buddy movie, a little bit family dysfunction drama, but these parts add up to create a richly entertaining adventure that works as a viable cinematic adventure.

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is waist-deep in child support and determined to find the money to save his family ranch as a legacy for his children. He turns to older brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), a career criminal who has been out of jail a year after doing a ten year stretch in prison, to help him secure the money he needs. The Howard brothers begin robbing branches of a particular Texas bank chain and after a couple of robberies, the task of bringing the brothers to justice somehow lands in the lap of a world weary Texas Ranger named Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his Indian/Mexican deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) and the viewer has a front seat to one of the most emotionally charged games of criminal cat and mouse to hit movie screens.

What screenwriter Sheridan has effectively done here has brought us a pair of bad guys and a pair of good guys whose degree of good and bad is never black and white and whose relationships offer some subtle and unforeseen parallels. Yes, the Howard Brothers rob banks and thanks primarily to Tanner, know exactly what they are doing...I was impressed by the fact that as they hit the cash drawers, they only take small bills and only take loose bills, nothing that is bundled, assuming that loose bills are more difficult to trace I imagine. It is also made clear that the brothers have a very specific mission and are not interested in hurting anyone. There is a lovely moment right before the third robbery we witness where Toby asks Tanner to go easy on the teller this time. It is at this moment, where these guys really stopped being black and white villains, aided by early backstory regarding their very troubled past as children that has only strengthened their bond.

As for Ranger Hamilton and Alberto, we are exposed to a relationship that is like a long married couple...Hamilton's methodical and sometimes maddening approach to nailing the Howard brothers is often overshadowed by his often condescending treatment of Alberto, who shrugs it off for the most part, but it's obvious there are moments where Alberto would like to punch his boss in the face. There is an element of humor to Hamilton's treatment of Alberto that effectively conceals a respect that Hamilton only reveals during the climactic confrontation with Toby and Tanner.

It is the crafting of these two sets of relationships that sets this crime drama apart from most, along with the fact that the story never takes itself too seriously,,,there are a surprising amount of laughs in a story that on the surface appears to be deadly serious, but director Mackenzie lets the humor in these characters shine through without ever forgetting what's really going on here. I was also terribly amused that both the Howard brothers and our Texas Rangers had memorable encounters with sassy waitresses while on dinner breaks.

Mackenzie also pulled four remarkable performances from actors who created four characters who appear to have known each other forever. Chris Pine once again proves he is more than a pretty face with his intense Toby and Ben Foster, who I haven't seen since Alpha Dog, is explosive and exciting as the ticking time bomb that is Tanner. Gil Birmingham is a revelation as Alberto, holding his own opposite the amazing Jeff Bridges, who galvanizes the screen in this Oscar-nominated performance as the seemingly laid back Texas Ranger who is determined to see this case to the end, manifested in an unexpected second ending that this reviewer really didn't see coming. This film definitely displays inspiration from people like Tarantino and the Cohen Brothers, but this is a singularly unique film experience that left me spent.