Two brothers down on their luck in the game of life, set out to rob banks across the Texas landscape, to get rich come “Hell or High Water”. Texas brothers Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land for missed payments. For them, the hold-ups are just part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that seemed to have been stolen from under them. Justice seems to be theirs, until they find themselves on the radar of Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last grand pursuit on the eve of his retirement, and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Rangers on their heels, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the values of the Old and New West murderously collide, leaving behind a trail of blood and money that will leave the four men changed forever. “Hell or High Water” is directed by David Mackenzie, and is rated R for some strong violence, adult language throughout and brief sexuality.
David Mackenzie has certainly seen his fair share of Westerns, and after taking in a showing of his most recent effort, I can say that he maximizes the most of that experience with a presentation that left me rattled in my seat. For those who don’t know, “Hell or High Water” is garnering quite the positive reactions on all of the movie critic websites, so I was quite intrigued to see how well this movie lived up to the entirely positive reception that it has for itself. I can easily say that this is one of my very favorite films of 2016, and I feel confident that it will still be up there four months down the line when I make my annual countdown list. This movie has everything; sound precision that really packs an audio charge for people who take this movie on in a theater, superior acting to anything that I have seen during this movie season, and a narrative that builds such a powder-keg of spine-tingling tension that never disappoints. What’s amazing to me is how predictable Westerns have become over the last twenty years or so, but “Hell or High Water” breathes new life into a genre that is easily choreographed. This film always kept me guessing, and really builds to a third act climax that will send everyone home with a blurred vision on character morals and what motivates the risky decisions that we take on.
Some of that blur comes in the form of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s emphasis on meaningful characters building to a bigger payoff when that inevitable confrontation finally comes. This movie centers that importance of its characters with an equal time share between two duos that the movie depicts. The first is the law abiding Marshalls in the form of Bridges and Birmingham, and the second is in the on-screen brothers of Pine and Foster. On the former, the law figures could easily come off as the antagonists of this movie, but instead this well devised script tests its audience on the decision of who’s right and who’s wrong by letting them understand both sides of the coin. This makes for an even more difficult decision to that moral question, and as I said before; the answer feels very blurred. With the brothers, you soak in a lot of personality from their robbing of banks day after day. Despite some terrible things they do and poor decisions they make, these two are dedicated to the mission at hand of saving their family farm, and this becomes more evident with the introduction to the sneaky corporate banking system that has become a staple in this West Texas setting. This was one of those movies for me where I wanted everyone to win and come out unscathed, but I knew that simply wasn’t possible. When the consequences come, they mean that much more because of the details I mentioned here. Great characters make for meaningful story arcs, and “Hell or High Water” would be a passing grade if it rested simply on those laurels alone.
Fortunately, the movie has so much more to give to its audience, in the form of sound mixing/editing that rumbled the foundation of my safe zone in the theater. This movie was quite easy to immerse myself into because on more than one occasion I shook from surprise, as several times in the movie the bullets and ammunition hit your ears in an almost fourth-dimensional layering. Everything here feels authentically timed and telegraphed in terms of the firepower that it abuses positively on more than one occasion. The impacts of which left me flinching in my seat, with the reading of every devastating blow.
The cinematography and use of natural lighting also plays a big part in setting the correct tone for this deserted Texas landscape. It’s true, most Westerns take place in a dusty Texas town, but what pushes this movie one step further is that you can almost see the pain from so many citizens who lost what they had because they weren’t bold enough to fight for it. The brothers in this film are the only ones we see near or around their home soil, and that goes a long way in the creative feeling of just how alone these two central characters really are. The banks act as a kind of diamond in the rough or free cheese in a mouse trap, depending on how you see this story playing out. In addition to the visuals, the pacing is impressive considering how dry a story this can get. I never felt bored or uninterested in where the story was going, mostly because the exposition between these brothers kept growing more and more important as the film went on. I mentioned earlier this week in my review for “Indignation” how the greatest parts of the movie aren’t seen, and how important seeing those things are in a film that is played so dry. “Hell or High Water” proved me completely wrong, as this is brilliant storytelling without even one visual to play off of as proof. We learn so much about these characters because their chemistry intrigues us into hanging onto their every word.
For some of that chemistry, the work of Pine and Foster are simply magnetizing here. Ben Foster has always been a very underrated actor to me, charming his excellence and undeterred passion for each role he takes on. But here is something completely different for him. Almost a feeling like the creative leash is taken off of his neck, and we are seeing Foster shine through honestly for the first time ever. That’s not to say that Ben is a gun-toting man-child, but Foster definitely gave me that inside feeling of improv in his character, and it added more and more laughs to a story that needed some light-hearted humor. Pine continues to dazzle. This time encompassing raw human emotion that is so expressive without ever having to raise his voice or shout. I honestly had my doubts about Pine in this gritty role, but Chris has proven me wrong, with a range that delivers patiently for his time to shine within the confines of a loaded cast. Bridges is perhaps my favorite as this rundown Marshall just days from retirement. We have heard this character arc a thousand times before, so what makes the performance here any different? Bridges feels like something out of a Coen Brothers film, channeling menace without ever needing to prove it. I believed that this officer was someone you didn’t want to be on the other side of, and a lot of that is in Bridges grizzled veteran exterior that communicates his best days are behind him. This final case is like getting Bridges ‘Marcus’ in his prime for just a couple days. His intent to strike down becomes more and more clear as the film goes on, and Bridges becomes a metaphorical hawk who is always one step ahead.
Overall, “Hell or High Water” is a lethal dose of Texas gun-slinging that builds sharp tension with carefully constructed precision. It’s a callback to a forgotten era of film making that rough its rugged, timeless feel, offers an air of thought-provoking idealism taking place in a post-recession world. This one is a MUST SEE, and deserves all of the money that your big blockbusters didn’t during this disappointing Summer season.