There’s a fine line to be walked when a film attempts to capture the cultural, political, and societal zeitgeist while also telling a genre story. When it doesn’t work, you wind up with something that just rings completely false through and through. When it works though, you get something special, a bit of cinema that truly resonates. Hell or High Water is just that, something very special. I can’t recall the last movie that seethed with such righteous anger at the status quo for working class Americans yet also went about it in such a mellow way. It makes what could otherwise have been a simple though undeniably effective genre outing into so much more.
Director David Mackenzie, along with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, craft a damn near perfect American character study that also functions as a high level crime drama. It’s a brilliant mixture, where credit goes as much to the cast as the crew. They give their all, especially the central three performances, executing Mackenzie and Sheridan’s vision in a way that only can be fully appreciated. Armed with great acting, a phenomenal screenplay, and possibly the best final minutes of any film this year, Hell or High Water is something worth raving about.
Set in West Texas, this is the story of the Howard Brothers, two men who have led very different lives yet come together once more through the common purpose of saving their family’s farm. Toby (Chris Pine) is a law-abiding citizen and a family man at his core, despite being divorced and estranged from his sons. To him, the poverty that the Howard clan has suffered through for generations is like a disease, and he’s determined to cure his children and make sure they don’t fall into the hopeless malaise that most of the towns in West Texas have fallen into.
Tanner (Ben Foster), is a career criminal who finds it a chore to stay out of prison. He’d knock over a bank just for the fun of it, but he loves his brother and wants to help him with his last-ditch plan. The goal? Rob a number of branches of the bank that is going to foreclose on the farm and pay back the bankers with their own money. Things begin a little rough, but before long they’ve gotten the hang of it and even some begrudging support from other townspeople.
Their success, however, is not without cost. It has attracted the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is about to hit mandatory retirement, so this is his final chance to do some police work, all while continuing a long standing tradition of teasing Alberto for his mixed race heritage. These four individuals are destined to intersect, with each of them bringing something different to the confrontation. I won’t dare say what happens, but it builds to a conclusion that will put at least one lump in your throat and leave you with much to contemplate.
The main trio of performances here in Hell or High Water are absolutely pitch perfect. Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine bring to life characters who we’ve seen before in films to one degree or another, but in such a way that they feel wholly original. These are lived in performances, suggesting a long history before the movie ever began, and that’s hard to pull off.
Bridges initially might seem like comic relief with his un-PC mocking of his partner and odd ways of doing his job, but the truth of his nature is revealed soon enough. Where he begins and where he ends up are two very different places, trust me there. Foster has the broadest role and clearly is having a good time, but there are many moments where his anarchist nature falls away and you see how much of what he’s doing is for love this time around.
As for Pine, with whom Foster has an easy chemistry with, he has the hardest role to pull off, as he’s often silent, but he’s the one who will move you and possibly even break your heart. What might seem to outsiders as an act of greed is actually the most selfless act possible, and the lengths he’s willing to go in order to provide for his family will ring true. For my money, it’s the best work of his career so far. Gil Birmingham is very good too in a role that’s slightly less developed than the main trio, though still incredibly effective. Birmingham shares a rather compelling chemistry with Bridges, making them instantly feel like longtime partners.
Filmmaker David Mackenzie shoots this film with a quiet confidence that only makes it more powerful, while scribe Taylor Sheridan outdoes his already impressive work last year in Sicario. Sheridan grounds his story in reality, adding in so many little moments that will ring true to anyone who has felt like they’ve fought a losing battle against some form of “the machine”. Every character in Hell or High Water grapples with that in some way, and it’s palpable how real it feels. Mackenzie directs this all in a straightforward yet gritty manner, utilizing cinematographer Giles Nuttgens to great effect.
There’s also a low-key score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that slowly manages to make your pulse race during some of the tenser sequences. The pacing is deliberate, but that only makes the unexpected moments even better. At times, Mackenzie and Sheridan introduce black comedy elements, as well as pay homage to the westerns of the past, all while filtering it through modern politics and the plight of the 99%. Again though, it comes down to characters, and this is full of tremendous character work.
From a scene where Birmingham and Bridges order food from a flinty old waitress (not to mention any scene where the latter teases the former) to the aforementioned ending, you just keep learning more and more about who these folks are. The actions taken by these characters stayed with me long after the credits rolled, and you very well might feel the same way.
Without question, Hell or High Water is one of 2016’s very best so far. This feels destined to be one of the most underrated films of the year, especially when the awards season kicks into gear. In a just world, Bridges, Foster, and Pine would be in the conversation for acting nods, while Sheridan would have a nom for himself in Best Original Screenplay. I doubt I’ll see many better movies over the course of the fall and winter, since this is something truly special. The film, in some ways, is like the song Bruce Springsteen never wrote, as this just has that same feeling of Americana and the little guy yearning to be out from under the thumb of something bigger and less human than themselves.