It is not too often small films released outside of the traditional Oscar season make their way to the ceremony. Hell Or High Water was too good to ignore. It has stuck around to achieve the awards recognition it most certainly deserves. Like Moonlight, this is a film that hits home to many Americans. And, like La La Land, this is a movie that clings to the conventional style of its predecessors, all the while paving a new path for modern audiences. Simply put, Hell Or High Water has the shell of a gritty, violent western revenge tale, with much more brewing beneath its surface.
The film stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges and centers on Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine and Foster respectively), brothers who in present day West Texas have plotted a desperate bank robbing scheme to save a family farm. They set up a string of heists on the branches of a bank which is set to foreclose the farm. Hot on their trails is a soon to be retired Texas Ranger (Bridges) who seeks to go out with a bang. As they plan a final robbery, the Howard’s find themselves at the intersection of old west and 21st century values. The film was written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan.
It’s curious that a Scottish director has made one of the best American western films in decades. A neo-western of sorts, Hell Or High Water hits all the right beats, and then some. Pine and Foster are spectacular in the film. Really, it is Pine that steals the show in his most well rounded role to date. The always incredible and criminally underrated Foster turns in yet another amazing performance as well. Foster and Pine’s camaraderie as brothers is terrific. Tanner is a life long criminal. Yet Toby turns to his brother in pure desperation. Really, the film is about how far Toby is willing to go to give his kids and himself the chance to be out of poverty. He knows his own blood will understand. As flawed of a man as Tanner is, he is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure his little brother is taken care of. It is a means to a means for Toby.
Bridges is also great in the film as a snide and blunt Ranger who isn’t afraid to do what it takes. This is one of Bridges’ most nuanced performances in his distinguished career. He cracks purposefully racist jokes to his partner who is of Mexican and Native American descent. However, there is more to Ranger Marcus Hamilton. There is an insecure side, a side that knows his time has come. He is scared of retirement. His partner even points that out to Bridges who just shakes it off knowing very well what lies ahead of him. He wants to be useful and obviously dreads “sitting on the porch” as he puts it.
Taylor Sheridan’s script is expertly written. While his main characters have incredible depth, he seems to have spent time exploring even the most minor of side characters. It adds to the films authenticity and earnestness. Sheridan’s ability to seamlessly weave incredibly funny, honest dialogue and palpably tense conversation throughout the film is a testament to his skill as a storyteller. Mackenzie also seems to truly understand the script and pulls exactly what he needs out of his actors, no more, no less. There isn’t a protagonist or an antagonist here. Mackenzie plays both sides of a complicated issue so well, that we ultimately end up not taking sides and instead, become compelled by the masterful execution of this story.
The film is a character study, blending new west issues with old west violence. But it’s not so much a character study of two people. Rather, it is a look at an idea that even in modern times, elements of the Wild Wild West still exist. It is that time and place that makes this film truly standout. Amidst the oh so familiar frontier style aesthetic, lies billboards selling debt relief and modern reminders that some may never recover from predatory lending. A ferocious fire lights up a serene prairie and we are reminded by a modern cowboy just how antiquated his lifestyle is. A modern theme is placed in a modern time, yet it still feels like the old West in some respect. People are struggling to get by. Toby and Tanner see no way out but to steal from those who stole, or in this case plan on stealing, from them.
Hell Or High Water pays homage to the ideals of the classic westerns, while still paving its own path. The morality of its premise and its characters is ambiguous. And much like the Wild West legends and stories we know, it is a gritty, stark piece of film that flips the traditional western on its side and turns over a new stone. It is a razor sharp and terrifically crafted piece of cinema that doesn’t need flashy box office numbers or validation from any awards body. Flat out, it never ceases to entertain. It even lands a perfectly timed “that’s what she said” joke. The movie is confirmation that come hell or high water of its own, Hollywood can still spew out original material.