Hell or High Water makes for a contemplative dramatic thriller that is fueled by great performances and strong direction.
Hell or High Water follows divorcee Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-convict brother Tanner (Ben Foster) as the pair rob a series of small-town Texas Midland bank branches, in order to save their family’s West Texas farmland from being foreclosed, following the death of their mother. Between Toby having carefully planned out their entire operation and Tanner having the actual experience (as well as the willingness to get his hands dirty) needed to get the job done, the duo are soon on their way to pulling the whole thing off and saving their inheritance – which, as Toby recently found out, is worth much more than anyone previously believed.
However, the Howard brothers are also being pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers: Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) and Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). Marcus, who is himself on the verge of retirement, hops at the opportunity for one last thrill before he’s put out to pasture. Thus, these four men soon find themselves on the path towards a showdown – one that may not ultimately go down the way that any of them would want it too.
Hell or High Water is the second film scripted by actor/screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, after his breakout as a writer on the acclaimed 2015 film, Sicario. Where Sicario has elements of a neo-western, Hell or High Water is a full-blown neo-western crime drama – one that relies on several common themes and tropes of those genres, yet at the same time thoughtfully re-examines (and, by the same turn, de-romanticizes) them, so as to breathe fresh life into its familiar plot points and character archetypes. Hell or High Water makes for a contemplative dramatic thriller that is fueled by great performances and strong direction.
Directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense), Hell or High Water‘s setting and interweaving plot threads bring to mind the collective work of Cormac McCarthy – minus the nihilistic overtones and with more of a character-driven approach. Similar to a McCarthy story, the themes and relationships between the main characters here are carefully developed through their interactions (both what they do and don’t say), in between the moments of raw violence. These conversational scenes allow the film’s main players to naturally evolve (or not evolve, as the case may be) over the course of the slow-burn cat and mouse game that they are active participants in – thus revealing each to have a distinctly flawed “masculine” identity. Hell or High Water makes for an intriguing and worthwhile character study, on those grounds alone.
Hell or High Water also possesses a quirky and dark sense of humor – one that comes through in particular during scenes between the Texas Rangers Alberto Parker and Marcus Hamilton, as played by Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges. Birmingham (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) has a natural screen chemistry with the Oscar-winning Bridges; this allows the two to bounce sardonic quips off one another (based around their age and ethnicity, respectively) as easily as they broach heavier topics – in particular, how often might has made right throughout U.S. history, be it in the treatment of Native Americans in the past or the economic lower-class in the present (ideas that resonate throughout the film). Bridges, as he did playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, thrives while portraying an aging maverick whose prickly demeanor hides his vulnerability when it comes to growing old – and, in his mind, obsolete.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster similarly make for effective foils to one another while playing the Howard brothers, Toby and Tanner. Foster brings Tanner to life with an excellent mix of braggadocio, criminal savviness and sensitivity – stemming not only from his troubled past, but his awareness that his way of living will catch up to him before old age does. It’s Foster’s great performance that will (and should) earn him critical acclaim, but Pine’s more introspective and quiet turn is equally good in its own right. The multi-faceted nature of both characters only further paints both the justifications for their actions and the world in which they live – not to mention, Hell or High Waters‘ moral outlook in general – in deeper shades of grey.
MacKenzie and his frequent director of photography, Giles Nuttgens, also paint the Texas setting (as “played” by New Mexico) of Hell or High Water with a rich palette of desert-y colors – creating a real sense of atmosphere and giving the film a nice Impressionist visual style in the process. From a directorial respective, MacKenzie does a excellent job of varying the pacing of scenes and moments too, recognizing when to allow certain shots to linger longer and when to employ more economic storytelling techniques. The direction on Hell or High Water isn’t quite on the masterful level as something like (to make an appropriate comparison) the Coen Brothers’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men – but it’s very good, in its own right.
Hell or High Water doesn’t necessarily break new story ground for its genre, but it does find the poetry in its narrative conventions – simply through the quality of writing, directing and acting on display here. The film thus provides a nice showcase for its main cast (someone like Foster in particular) and further establishes Sheridan as being an intriguing American storyteller with a voice all his own. All things considered, Hell or High Water is very much the rare gem of a mid-to-late August theatrical release that is worth checking out on the big screen, even as the larger summer movie season slows to a crawl this month.
Hell or High Water is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 102 minutes long and is Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.
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