I’m not ready to say that this weekend officially marks the end of the summer movie season. But, if you look at this week’s new releases, you’ll notice they all have a decidedly non-blockbuster feel to them.
Among those new releases is an very good movie called Hell or High Water starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Ben Foster (Lone Survivor). It tells the story of two brothers robbing multiple branches of the same small bank across West Texas and the two Texas Rangers trying to catch them.
Pine plays Toby, the younger and smarter brother. He was there for the boys’ mother as she was dying of cancer. During that time two things happened. First, the Texas Midlands Bank issued Toby and his mother a loan on their ranch that virtually guaranteed the bank would be able to repossess it. Second, prospectors found oil on that same property.
Foster plays Tanner, the wild older brother. He wasn't around when their mom was at her worst, because he was in jail. Tanner has a history of getting into trouble. He even killed his dad in a “hunting accident.”
The plan is for Toby and Tanner to steal the amount of money they need to pay off the Texas Midlands Bank loan from Texas Midlands Bank itself. That way the oil under the ranch remains theirs and not the bank’s. The plan is well thought out too. No one dies or really even gets hurt. They steal only the money from the drawer and never anything bigger than a $20. The idea is to make it as hard as possible to trace.
On the other side of the law we have Marcus (Bridges), a soon-to-retire Texas Ranger who views his life after law enforcement as something to dread. Bridges seems equal parts bored and right at home in the role. I mean, he’s played this same kind of character a lot lately - not resigned to his lot in life per se, but very comfortable with the present and very uncomfortable with the future. The way the role is written though is brilliant.
Marcus is a racist, but…can I say “fun racist?" Is that something?
Anyway, Marcus genuinely cares about his partner Alberto (Twilight’s Gil Birmingham), who is of Comanche and Mexican decent. In Marcus’ mind, the endless cracks about Alberto’s ethnicity is harmless ribbing of his best friend, but the constant jokes clearly get under Alberto’s skin. Think of Marcus as your dad who doesn’t quite realize that he has crossed a line and then when you tell him he has, makes another inappropriate crack as his way of saying I’m sorry.
Hell or High Water has some not so subtle themes going on here. There is the theme of what our family makes us. Toby and Tanner’s dad was an abusive alcoholic who turned Tanner into a criminal. Toby’s kids turned him into a criminal mastermind. Toby gave Tanner a chance to be a hero. Marcus’ wife is dead, and as a result Alberto is the only “family” he has, but Alberto has his own family and thus is able to keep Marcus at a distance.
There’s also the less-than-subtle “big money versus the little guy” theme. The monologues about banks ripping off the common man and poverty being perpetrated by financial institutions are abundant. They are an unnecessary baseball bat meant to bash dense people over the head in a script that is otherwise subtle and effective with its message.
Hell or High Water is part Raising Arizona and part No Country for Old Men. I’m sure there’s more to the mix, but those are the first two movies that come to mind when trying to trace this one’s DNA.
If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see a number of critics that have deemed Hell or High Water the best movie of the summer. Some have even said it is the best movie of 2016 so far. It is a very good movie, but I hesitate to call it the best movie of the summer because “summer movies” have a very specific meaning to me. They’re big, dumb (sometimes) fun popcorn movies. Hell or High Water was made for next to nothing by Hollywood standards.
Make no mistake, Hell or High Water is a great movie. Maybe not my favorite of the year so far. That distinction still goes to Bryan Cranston’s The Infiltrator. What has critics praising Hell or High Water as a great summer movie is that it is surrounded by such garbage when you look at the “now playing” section of Fandango.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.