Dir. David Mackenzie. U.S. 2016

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The question of whether the ends justify the means boils down to this: if a goal is morally important enough, is any method of achieving it acceptable? Socrates said, "It is never right to do wrong, and never right to take revenge; nor is it right to give evil, or in the case of one who has suffered some injury, to attempt to get even." The question dominates Scottish director David Mackenzie’s (“Starred Up”) Hell or High Water, a modern genre Western set in West Texas in which two brothers, the unemployed Toby (Chris Pine) and the ex-con Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), rob various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in order to to meet overdue alimony payments to Toby’s divorced wife Debbie (Marin Ireland).

They also want to prevent foreclosure of their deceased mother’s ranch by the same chain of banks. Toby also recognizes that the oil discovered on the property influenced the bank to sell their mother a mortgage she could not repay. He calculates that if he pays off the mortgage he can then put the property in the names of his two sons, Justin (John-Paul Howard) and Randy (Christopher W. Garcia), and guarantee them a better life than he and his brother have had. The film lets us know repeatedly that the banks are the villains.

Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a burly, good-natured but cynical officer who is near retirement has been assigned to the case. He tells his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) when he spots the Bank Manager, “That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.” After Alberto, who is part Mexican and part Native-American, tells Hamilton how the American Indians were robbed of their property, he says “Now, it’s the banks who are doing the robbing.” Toby later explains that he robbed banks because he’s been poor his whole life. “It’s like a disease passed on from one generation to the next,” he says, then adds, “But not my boys.”

The film is location-specific and we don’t have to ask where we are. Giles Nuttgen’s cinematography assures us we are in the Southwest (the film was shot in New Mexico) with dusty landscapes, oil rigs, a burning sun, billboards wanting to know if you are “In-Debt?”, and decaying towns filled with abandoned homes. Writer Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay for Sicario, offers clichéd portraits of rough-hewn good ol’ boy types who look like they would just as soon shoot you as say hello, a cantankerous waitress in the T-Bone Diner played by eight-eight-year-old Margaret Bowman who knows what you want to order even before you open your mouth, and a sheriff who playfully teases his partner with racial jokes, some funny, most not.
The two brother bank robbers are very different. Tanner is a trigger-happy sociopath who has just been released from serving ten years in prison, while his brother, though looking as raunchy as his brother, is shown as being meek, thoughtful, and careful. Neither are very proficient bank robbers. One time they arrived at the bank not knowing it has been closed up, another time they get there before the manager even arrives with his keys to open the banks.

After bigger banks are hit and Tanner kills two people, the inevitable chase scene takes place that leads to the desert, then to the mountains where some issues are resolved and others are not. Hell or High Water is a highly entertaining if not quite fully satisfying film that respects its characters enough to make them fully dimensional. It also has a rare social conscience. As far as whether or not the ends justify the means - you choose.


Howard Schumann

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