Hell or High Water (2016 CBS Films, Liongate)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham.
Directed by David Mackenzie.
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Braden Aftergood.
Written by Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens. Edited by Jake Roberts.
A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.
Nothing like a good ol’ modern Western! Is that a genre? It is now. One word best describes Hell or High Water: dusty. Set in the desolate and wide open spaces of West Texas, Hell or High Water tells the story of brothers Toby and Tanner, who are on a collision course with Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, as they rip their way through the tiny towns and burgs dotting rural Texas highways. As the patient, yet dedicated Ranger Hamilton, Jeff Bridges gives a sturdy performance of an aging lawman on the cusp of retiring.
Sure, it might be slightly cliché—a retiring cop on one last mission—but Hell or High Water avoids those pitfalls. Bridges is He’s at his best sharing dialogue with Rangers partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who has to endure Hamilton’s incessant put downs and passively racist comments at Parker’s heritage. It’s less a love-hate relationship and more like the banter between old friends.
Director David Mackenzie embraced Texas culture throughout the film to give Hell or High Water an air of authenticity. This is not a Hollywood rendition of Texas! In addition to colorful extras, he treats the scenery like a character in the movie to establish the mood of isolation and desperation of surviving in East Jesus Nowhere, Texas: population, 19 + two anthills and a rattlesnake. Credit cinematographer Giles Nuttgens photography of the landscape in achieving the film’s ambience. He doesn’t treat the Texas plains and oil fields like a hellscape or anything, but the film definitely feels like the lonely roads of a Bruce Springsteen song.
Ultimately, Hell or High Water is a cops-and-robbers chase movie, but the subplots lie at the heart of this drama. It’s certainly not a one-dimensional, good guys vs. bad guys movie. At the heart of Hell or High Water is a story of defiance and anger, of triumph over past failures and of sacrifice for the sake of others; all carried by phenomenal performances.
Hell or High Water succeeds as a dialogue-driven film with a little bit of action sprinkled in. The strength of the movie is in the acting. Ben Foster, as Tanner—the reckless, loose cannon—is a wildly under-appreciated actor. Once again, he delivers a knockout performance by bringing an edge to his character that always leaves the impression of a powder keg about to ignite.
For my money, he’s gives the best performance in the movie, which is saying something when he’s paired with Chris Pine in most of his scenes. Pine is no slouch either. Sure, he has matinee idol good looks (he is Capt. Kirk, after all) but delivers subtle, measured performance as Tanner’s younger, calmer brother, Toby. He has to be the rational one while Tanner does the dirty work. Though he’s eternally conflicted by Tanner’s methods, Toby never walks away from him…to his credit or his failing, as it were.
To its credit Hell or High Water doesn’t lay it on thick with faux emotion. These are stoic men with their respective marching orders and are going to see it through to the end, consequences be damned (come Hell or high water, I suppose). The combination of tight dialogue, good pacing and visually fascinating cinematography make Hell or High Water an enjoyable, quick 100-minute movie. Is it worth its Oscar nomination? Well, I’ll let you decide.
*** stars (out of five)