American Dreams: Hell or High Water, War Dogs

by / Aug. 17, 2016 1am EST

You may not care to see summer winding down, but you have to admit there’s one good thing about it: Having exhausted its supply of superhero and comic book movies, Hollywood goes back to releasing product aimed at relatively adult audiences.

High on that list is Hell or High Water, a crime drama set in West Texas, where even the bank managers wear string ties and Stetson hats. The opening sequence sets the mood: In a small town as ugly as an army barracks, all that breaks up the monotony are signs advertising “Debt relief” or simply announcing “Closing down.”

This is where two brothers launch a spate of bank robberies. Tanner (Ben Foster) is an old hand at bad behavior, having recently been released from prison. Toby (Chris Pine) is new to it, but he’s the brains behind their operation. They’re targeting banks not simply for Willie Sutton’s famous rationale—because that’s where the money is—but as part of a plan that becomes apparent as the movie unfolds. Suffice to say that while everyone in this depressed part of America considers the banks the bad guys, no one hates them more than Toby, who feels they took advantage of his dying mother to steal the family land.

The brother’s method sets off the suspicions of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a veteran Texas ranger not looking forward to his approaching retirement. (I hear what you’re thinking: a cop about to retire? I know what that means. But the script by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote last year’s Sicario, knows that you’re thinking that. Don’t try to get ahead of things.) Marcus and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) set out to get one step ahead of brothers, a waiting time that requires Marcus to indulge in his favorite pastime, making jokes about Alberto’s half-Mexican half-Comanche heritage.

A cast like this doesn’t hire onto a modestly budgeted feature just to shoot guns and chase around in cars. Toby’s plan, as we find, is both ingenious and touching. And there’s a clever structure involving the two sets of brothers (one real, one uniformed) that isn’t immediately clear underneath the depressed ambiance (the score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and dry humor. Director David Mackenzie, who has had a steady career making minor films since his internationally acclaimed Young Adam in 2004, is one of those Brits with a keen eye for American landscape and an equally keen ear for its language: watch an actress named Margaret Bowman steal a scene from Bridges as a waitress in a café that sells nothing but T-bone steaks.

Hell or High Water hearkens back to the great Warner Brothers gangster dramas of the early 1930s, which were about hard times driving criminal activity. It would make a great double feature with No Country For Old Men.


The last few weeks in August are when Hollywood tends to dump its dogs, the stinkers they’re contractually obligated to put into theaters even though it’s clear they’re going to flop. This is why I have little hope for the remake of Ben-Hur opening this week: if it was any good at all, it would have been released any other time of the year. It’s also way I wasn’t eager to see War Dogs, an apparent (from the ads) buddy comedy directed by Todd Phillips, known for summer slob comedies like the Hangover series.

But just as Will Ferrell collaborator surprised everyone by tackling a serious subject (albeit in a grimly funny way) in The Big Short, War Dogs shows Phillips going after another enormous waste of public funds, the military budget. Based on a true story, the movie stars Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, high school friends from Miami. Diveroli had moved away to Los Angeles to go into business with his uncle, who showed him how to make money buying guns collected by the police and selling them online. When he runs into Packouz at a funeral, he enlists him in an even more lucrative (but legal) scheme: supplying the seemingly endless Pentagon demand for arms and ammo to outfit the Afghan army.

It’s a market he found on the internet. As he puts it, once the military got caught buying too much stuff from Dick Chaney’s buddies, they had to make a big show of buying from smaller vendors. All they have to do is find supplies for the items on demand, and they can clean up as middlemen.

Of course, the business spirals out of control as they go after bigger opportunities that present ore risk. Phillips borrows openly from Martin Scorsese’s style for this kind of story, especially Goodfellas, but he’s got the story to stand up to the style. And the finale won’t exactly make you feel that these problems in military procurement have been solved.