Film Review: 'Hell or High Water'
The Western genre is a rather curious one. In spite of its specific-seeming characters, settings, and themes, it was so ubiquitous in the earlier years of film that historians and academics often consider the Western a fully-fledged genre of its own, right beside Action/Adventure, Horror, and Fantasy. Although we are well outside the heyday of Western films, their influence in movies today is unmistakable.
There's no clearer indication of that then in 2016's Western-crime-drama hybrid Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie's excellently crafted love letter to all of those genres, and it delivers a compelling, if not modest, tale to boot. Led by Chris Pine in one of his more serious roles, and Jeff Bridges in yet another solid entry in his extensive resume, Hell or High Water never once falters, and Taylor Sheridan's pinpoint screenplay makes this one of the most fascinating and enjoyable movies of the year.
As mentioned prior, the film is a unique mix of several genres, with its Western roots incredibly clear; the film is set in the thick of Texas, where town sheriffs wear their cowboy hats to the office and polish their badges. Many of them walk around thinking they're John Wayne, and that's definitely clear in old sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), who's on the cusp of retiring. He's one component to this story.
On the crime part: Hell or High Water centers around two bank-robbing brothers in Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), whose personality differences are as clear as night and day. Toby, the more introspective one, appears to have a strong sense of justice; Tanner, the ex-con with a short fuse, is much more unpredictable. Their scheme: rob a set of Texas Midlands Banks around the state and use the money to buy back their family's ranch from the same bank. In spite of their differences, the two make great criminals. They are the next component to this story.
On the drama part: we spend equal time with both Marcus and Toby/Tanner. Marcus, who wants to end his career with a bang, sets out to hunt down the men, bringing his Native American deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) along with him. Meanwhile, Toby and Tanner keep heading out on the run as Toby battles his own demons as a divorced father.
Everyone in Hell or High Water has something to fight for, and the way the stakes are raised at each point in the story makes the movie incredibly watchable and endlessly enjoyable. Sheridan's screenplay hits all of the high notes without ever going sour and never once turns to a tired cliche, making this an incredibly refreshing film.
Making the movie even more convincing are Pine's and Bridges' performances, which are impassioned yet humble enoughthat Hell or High Water feels authentically plausible. Yet this is also a hell of a cinematic film; the cinematography, with a mix of emotional close-ups and picturesque wide shots, is undoubtedly gorgeous. The editing molds to suit the mood of the film as well; when the brothers rob the banks, the editing changes to match. When it's time to get talkier, to explore more emotion, it maximizes their performances.
In fact, it's undoubtedly a part of how Bridges is showcased in his true form here; on top of 2010's True Grit, he definitely knows how to play the older gentleman looking for one last hurrah. Even without their own nominations, it still stands that both Pine and Foster give their all here as well, heightening their familiar drama and brotherly struggles.
Hell or High Water is the rare example of a movie that is essentially a Western in spirit, even if it does not contain all of the traits typically associated with one. It's a modern Western that showcases the innovative spirit of both Mackenzie and Sheridan - with their respective directing and writing - to make it so accessible and enjoyable to a modern audience. The Western these days may have a limited appeal, but Hell or High Water, with its steady grounding in reality and relatable characters, is undoubtedly appealing to all.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
Written by Taylor Sheridan.
Directed by David Mackenzie.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster.