"Hell or High Water"

Ben Foster, left, and Chris Pine in a scene from “Hell or High Water.”

If you’re going to rob a bank, don’t do it in Texas — you won’t be the only one with a gun.

“Hell or High Water” is a skillful story of desperation and larceny worthy of Bonnie and Clyde’s approval. It’s neo-Western, cops-and-robbers film for the ages, but one that dives deeper than many of it’s predecessors, tackling themes of family, race and the economy.

In his most recent film, director David Mackenzie powerfully portrays the Lone Star State, not only as the harsh backdrop for a brutal crime spree, but as an unforgettable and contributing character. It’s broad open swaths of unforgiving land are inhabited by hardened individuals intensely aware of their isolation. When disaster strikes, they’re on their own. And when trouble befalls the Howard ranch, brothers Toby and Tanner set their lawless plans in motion to rob the banks robbing them.

In a few racially-driven monologues Mackenzie’s central question is simple: Who owns the land?

From the hands of one people to the next, control passes from Native Americans, conquered by white men, conquered by bankers; each decimated people suffering the same consequences of poverty and shame.

Toby and Tanner set out to change their family’s fortune in an off-beat, dangerous journey.

Following the death of his ailing mother, Toby Howard (Chris PIne) discovers the family’s insurmountable debt, that if left unpaid to the bank will mean the forfeiting of their ranch. Determined to retain the land for his boys, Toby enlists the help of his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to carry out a series of robberies from the same bank chain he must repay.

The pair are anything but professional, choosing small-time branches that allow them haphazard success. Taking only loose bills from teller drawers they must hit several branches to reach their goal.

Threatening the brothers’ success is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger whose impending retirement does little to dissuade his hunt for the Howard boys. With his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), the rangers follow in a relentless and patient pursuit until the audience is finally given satisfaction in a showdown between outlaw and officer.

The film is a slow burning drama, that is at once funny and serious. Stunning cinematography, complex characters and a distinguished screenplay combine to make “Hell or High Water,” the film we’ve been waiting for all summer. Ben Foster captures the stage, easily drawing out the duality of Tanner’s ruthless and loyal nature. He’s in good company with Chris Pine who has steadily (and thankfully) been working his way out of the Star Trek series, as well as Gil Birmingham and the inimitable Mr. Bridges, whose performance was perhaps too reminiscent of Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”

“Hell or High Water” departs a distant Hollywood to earnestly assess the death of rural America, paying tribute to the people who continue to struggle against the effects of poverty and generations of broken dreams.

In the end it begs a single question: How far would you go to keep what’s yours?

Katie Alaimo is a designer and photographer at The News-Review.

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