Movie Review - Hell or High Water

Taylor Sheridan wrote this film. It's his second feature to be produced after last year's Sicario. That Oscar-nominated film was about how an organization or institution can be turned against itself, or else the failure or corruption of said institutions. Sicario specifically focused on the corruption of federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and DEA. In this movie, the corrupted institutions are banks. Sheridan's film, however, doesn't target the big banks on Wall Street, á la Money Monster. He wants to maintain the same Western, desert-landscape of Sicario, so the movie isn't set in Manhattan. It's instead set in west Texas, and the bank in question is some Lone Star State-specific chain.

Sicario was problematic for its depiction of Mexico. This movie is equally problematic about its inclusion of Native Americans and a kind of hypocrisy with regard to its story. The movie focuses on two white, bank robbers who are trying to save money to pay off the bank that is trying to repossess the ranch of their later mother. The banks they rob are branches of the same bank trying to repossess their mother's ranch. They've crafted a clever plot, and maybe if Sheridan had limited the script to that plot, it wouldn't have rang so hypocritical. Unfortunately, Sheridan keeps injecting commentary on the plight of Native Americans to a degree that the movie would have made more sense to make the two bank robbers Native American instead of white.

Chris Pine (Star Trek and Into the Woods) stars as Toby Howard, a man with an ex-wife and teenage children with child support. Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma and Lone Survivor) co-stars as Tanner Howard, the slightly older brother with no attachments who just seems crazier with far less inhibitions. Both have become bank robbers only hitting Texas Midland banks, the same chain of banks that's foreclosing on their late mother's ranch, which is a significant piece of land with oil reserves underneath.

Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart and True Grit) also stars as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who's about to retire. He has a partner named Alberto Parker, played by Gil Birmingham (Twilight and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Birmingham is Native American from the Comanche nation. In the film, Alberto is also Comanche. Other Native Americans encountered are Comanche too, and when Alberto speaks, he often comments on the history and context of Native Americans.

While I appreciate the inclusiveness in Sheridan's script of Native Americans and their perspective, he ultimately short-changes them in favor of the white characters. First off, Marcus is constantly making horrible jokes at Alberto's expense. It's supposed to be endearing in a you-pick-on-the-one-you-love-the-most kind of way, but it was incessant teasing that became annoying. Because Alberto's character was written not to throw jabs back, it was even more frustrating. Alberto then disappears for the last few minutes of this movie and his presence instead of Marcus would have been better.

Director David Mackenzie captures the poverty of west Texas, or New Mexico as Texas. There are constant shots of billboards advertising fast cash or debt relief. There is also plenty of time spent in what's called "dead towns" in Texas. Alberto even critiques Texas Midland vis-à-vis the Native American experience of losing their lands. It resonates so well, yet we return to Toby and Tanner as they continue their plot to hold onto some land and it's almost as if the filmmakers don't get the irony. How are we supposed to feel about being reminded that Native Americans had their land stolen by white people, while watching a movie about white people stealing, all to hold onto said stolen land?

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.

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