Hell or High Water Review: A Brilliant Sun-baked Crime Drama
Hell or High Water
Review by Daniel Rester
Hell or High Water, a Western thriller from writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), grips its audience from the opening shot onward. The film fades in on a dusty road in a seemingly empty small-scale Texas town. As an old muscle car approaches in the distance, the camera follows it and moves past a woman walking and a plain wall with graffiti on it reading “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” We then continue to follow the car, beginning a 180-degree turn until the car disappears and we see the woman again, now smoking and by another building. She puts out her cigarette and approaches the front of this new building, a bank, us following her as she’s greeted by the car’s owners: two men with masks and guns.
With just that one fluid camera movement, Hell or High Water clearly establishes its setting and the themes and tension to follow. It’s moments like this that make the film so special, crackling with suspense but also on point with its authenticity and messages.
As things move along, we learn the two robbers are brothers named Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). The former is a divorcee trying to keep ahold of his late mother’s land (possibly rich with oil) so he can leave something behind for his sons to look forward to in life; the latter is a hothead one year out of jail who agrees to help his brother since he knows the outlaw life better. The two plan to rob a number of banks and then pay back the very same bank chain in order for them not to foreclose on the land.
In pursuit of the thieving brothers are Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is on the edge of retirement (the only tedious cliché), constantly teasing his partner with jokes (Alberto is half Mexican, half Native American) but deep down having an understanding with him. The two reflect on the various aftermaths of the robberies as they try to catch Toby and Tanner.
As with Sicario, Sheridan makes the Southwest a character itself in Hell or High Water with his writing. While the main characters and story are already interesting, it’s the little details found in the dialogue and supporting character shadings that really make the screenplay something else. And Mackenzie does an excellent job of bringing it all to life. For instance, a basic diner scene between Marcus and Alberto is given extra flavor when a cranky old waitress basically tells them they are getting steak whether they like it or not. Later in the film, the two Rangers are outside and the waitress leaves her work in the background. The attention to the little moments and background going-ons like those show just how much care was put into the filmmaking; kudos to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and editor Jake Roberts for their precision in helping Mackenzie bring his vision to the screen.
The acting of Hell or High Water is aces across the board. Pine gives arguably the best performance of his career so far, proving he has a lot to offer outside of the role of James Kirk in Star Trek. He allows us to feel for Toby’s everyman qualities despite the mistakes the character makes. The always-underappreciated Foster is also dynamite. He proves once again that no one can play off-balance but layered hotheads like he can; one can only hope that he will finally receive a long-overdue Oscar nomination for his supporting work here, as he has still yet to ever be nominated. Bridges basically plays Bridges, but that is just fine because, well, he’s Bridges. The actor isn’t one of the greats for no reason.
Hell or High Water is a bit of a slow burn in its second act and has a few familiar scenes. Those are just minor complaints for this overall outstanding film, and it’s nice to finally have a great picture come along in this bummer of a summer movie season. Hell or High Water is easily one of the best films of the year thus far.
My Grade: A (on an F to A+ scale).
Viewing Recommendation: Skip It, Wait for Cable, Wait for Blu-ray Rental/VOD, See It at Matinee Price, Worth Full-Price Theater Ticket
MPAA Rating: R (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality).