BY ROGER THOMAS
The cinema has always been enthralled with crimes and those who commit them. Whether it is a mob boss who has minions to complete the violent work or a lone robber in a convenience store, tales have been told of those who violate laws and those who seek to stop them.
For me, one of the first of these I viewed as a child was “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was on television, so some of the violence was edited. However, I remember how exciting it was to watch them fleeing from one crime to another.. As an adult, my favorite scene is when Bonnie and Clyde talk to each other and ponder what they would have done differently.
“Hell or High Water” made me remember that classic from nearly 50 years ago. Instead of a group of bank robbers, “High Water” tells a fictional story of two brothers who begin robbing banks. They have an agenda and a plan, all of which becomes clearer as the plot develops.
The film has many interesting and quirky supporting characters. However, most of the action focuses on four main characters. There are the two brothers, portrayed perfectly by Ben Foster as Tanner Howard and Chris Pine as the younger brother, Toby. On the opposite side of the law, Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play the Texas Rangers assigned to stop the brothers from hitting more banks. These four portrayals are one of the strengths that make this such a fine film.
Beyond those actors’ work, there is a very smart screenplay. This story is interesting from start to finish. The action scenes are choreographed well. There are also moments that are quiet and moving. The best of these is the scene between Toby and his teenage son, played by John-Paul Howard.
There are also many moments of genuine humor in the dialogue and the actions of the characters. Some of the best laughs come during the bank robberies and from the aforementioned quirky supporting characters. Then there are the two Texas Rangers who always produce laughs as they debate almost everything. This well-written film has many strengths.
The greatest attribute of the film is the audience’s ability to empathize with all four of the lead characters, especially the criminals. Much like we root for Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Vito and Michael Corleone, the Howard brothers inspire us to care about them even though none of us would excuse their actions in the real world.
Some of that is the magic of film. And some of it happens when characters are finely developed. It is easy to care for them, in spite of their flaws. Then there is a common thread of humanity in all of us. A wise friend of mine pointed out years ago a truth of which I was aware, but had never pondered. “Every person living, no matter what they become, started out as someone’s newborn baby.”
Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have created a film that is well-crafted and offers a slice of humanity, good, bad, and mortal. It is the human part that keeps us engaged in the stories of the righteous and those who are less than pure.
I suppose in the end, I remember most the closing moments of the film. The final scene offers clear and perfect closure, or at least I think so.
The idea of making a sequel to this film would be a mistake. Everything has transpired to conclude the story. Every word has been spoken that needed to be said. It is complete.
“Hell or High Water” is one of the better films of this year.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.