By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: Hell Or High Water

“Three tours of Iraq and no bail-out for people like us,” reads a spray-painted wall in the opening shot of Hell or High Water (formerly Comancheria), a crime drama from David Mackenzie (2013’s Starred Up). With gripping tension and real-world stakes from the get-go, the graffiti message resonates as a reminder of the bitter resentment people have against financial institutions, and that they’re willing to fight back.

First introduced in morning Texas heat wearing ski masks, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers on a relatable mission: quietly tough Toby (Pine) needs to save his ranch from foreclosure, and he’s enlisted ex-con Tanner (Foster) to join him on several minor bank robberies. They’re only interested in robbing $5s, $10s, and $20s, which is another way of saying these are small jobs that only add up to a fraction of the loot we see in most heist films. But by restraining the amount of money to a sum earned on a single episode of “Jeopardy!,” Black List screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ensures we care, as it’s not about that “one last score.” “Poverty is a sickness,” Toby says at one point, and yet it’s expressed by nearly everyone in the film, from the just-getting-by to the generational cowboy.Mackenzie

The script is far better than your average smash-and-grab. It’s a vault of zingers and thoughtful conversations demanded of the genre to stand out, but are rarely delivered as well as they are here. Despite a conventional dynamic, Pine’s calm-and-collected Toby works effectively across Foster’s hotheaded Tanner—but Foster’s performance is unpredictable enough to revel in chaos, which occurs in improvised bank robberies and high speed getaways (set to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ somber score; yes, the deck is stacked in this heist pic).

As sheriff and deputy, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham share a hilarious, at times awkward partnership as they doggedly chase their outlaws, slinging slurs and insults over firearms. And just as we’re left worrying there are no interesting women in this overtly masculine two-on-two, a “rattlesnake” waitress takes the pair to task for not ordering their steak correctly.

The concept of having “fun” is a complex cornerstone to these men, and it’s central to the story. Hell or High Water is “fun” in the way that it will garner serious market interest in its consistently entertaining pacing and excellent shoot-out finale, but a little bit deeper and we see these well-developed characters enjoying the narrative more than the audience, which adds to the overall value of this genre entry. “I love West Texas,” Bridges grins as he strolls through town, cracking jokes at crime scenes. But it’s not just West Texas he admires: he’s happy to be working—he’s months from retirement—and his thrills come from the hunt in the same way Tanner’s come from being out of prison and breaking bad again. And as the film becomes more fatal, a rifle-crack results in near-orgasm for the sniper who fired it.

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“We’re all going to die so it makes it very easy. I haven’t always thought that way but I’ve realized it’s the truth. I think age gets you there, questioning your mortality… When you realize that, it’s so liberating, it’s so free, you can fly! There’s no need to hold on to anything. Like, think of the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you; it’s probably happened to 500 million people as well. Who gives a shit!”
~ Steve McQueen

“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.”
~ Stan Lee, 1965