In the running this awards season is the Indie buzz magnet HELL OR HIGH WATER. Directed David Mackenzie, the director of English award winner STARRED UP, this film was originally released as COMANCHERIA, based on a script by SICARIO writer Taylor Sheridan, which topped the Hollywood script blacklist in 2012. Since another movie created from that year’s list is the award-winning WHIPLASH, it is in good company.
The story is of the Howard brothers, cavalier ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and thoughtful divorcee with two teenaged sons Toby (Chris Pine) who are systematically robbing the Texas Midland banks to stave off the foreclosure of their dead mother’s ranch. Even with all their planning, they are unaware that a Texas Rangers, soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and the partner he mercilessly teases, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are hot on their trail, and slowly figuring out their next move.
It is the script of HELL OR HIGH WATER that makes it such an exceptional watch. The world has seen enough from the “heist gone bad” genre to last several lifetimes, but Sheridan brings new life to this particular cat and mouse game. He manipulates the pacing, builds character through scenes with each sets of characters, the two formerly estranged brothers and the rangers. Also, through much of the action, Sheridan raises questions of moral ambiguity. There isn’t any clear right or wrong with most of the characters. They are constantly sliding up and down the spectrum. Director MacKenzie knows just how to lay on the heat, visually and emotionally, easing it into the perfect low simmer. While there’s a great balance of intensity and humor, viewers know it’s only a matter of time before something explodes.
The chemistry between men within each twosome is essential to audiences investing completely in the story. This caused me to consider this group of actors, what their histories brought to this movie. What made for such connectivity? Was it acting, their personal histories, or both?
Three of the four have fascinating and storied histories of life in Hollywood as children, two with well-known fathers in the acting field. Jeff Bridges is the son of Lloyd Bridges, who appeared in over 150 movies and starred in a number of tv series, including SEA HUNT, where both Jeff and his actor brother Beau appeared as children. Chris Pine is also from an acting family, the son of TV actor Robert Pine, who among many other roles, co-starred in CHiPs. HIs grandmother Anne Gwynne acted in Hollywood, and was known as one of the earliest scream queens. Ben Foster comes by his typecasting as an intense overachiever honestly. He wrote, starred in, and directed a one-act play that won him third place in a worldwide competition when he was only 12 years old. Gil Birmingham is the odd man out in this quartet, in terms of when he started acting. Of Comanche heritage, he fell into the profession when he was asked to be in a Michael Jackson video while bodybuilding. Pine and Foster have a history that helped build the foundation for playing brothers, having worked together before on Disney’s THE FINEST HOURS. Bridges and Birmingham, on the other hand, found connection onset by playing guitar together between takes. However it is these co-stars found ways to connect, it’s clear all four approached their acting craft in HELL OR HIGH WATER with an intensity and commitment of spirit that shows in every scene.
HELL OR HIGH WATER is a great example of what happens when all the components of a film come together in cooperative fashion. The acting, writing, and direction, along with other creatives working below the line have created one of the year’s best films, and it deserves to be seen, so see it, come Hades or hurricanes.