Taylor Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water” didn’t have the easiest track to the big screen. It was finally purchased for production in 2012 after being highlighted as the Black List’s top script, but it would be another four years before it would finally hit theaters. But it’s hard to believe there has been a timelier moment for the movie to land than right now.
It has been accurately defined as a neo-western. It’s also a heist movie. It could be considered a comedy. Some may even call it an incisive bit of social commentary. Actually all of the above are fitting descriptions of this sensitive but slightly off-beat tale of two brothers burdened by their economic struggles. Director David Mackenzie takes this idea and visualizes it through the lens of tough small town living, something that the film rightly shows is slowly dying off.
Those not close to or familiar with the rural challenges the movie depicts may not appreciate how accurately the film captures it. In the real America small working class towns are drying up. Many have economies dependent on one or two plants or factories and when those industries leave the communities suffer. Sheridan and Mackenzie capture this with such vivid and authentic detail through a powerful mix of camera, script, and setting.
It’s this world that brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) live in. Toby is recently divorced and struggling to keep his family’s ranch left to him by his deceased mother. A reverse mortgage has left him smothering in debt and trying to avoid a looming foreclosure. Tanner is a rambunctious sort, recently out of prison and with no real direction for his life. But he does love his brother and will help him any way he can. That means helping him with well thought out robberies of a series of small West Texas banks.
The movie also tells the story of a retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) set out to find the men responsible for the series of bank robberies. Much of the film’s humor comes from their back-and-forth banter which features a slew of affectionate insults. Bridges is a hoot and is right in his comfort zone. You could say he’s channeling a variation of his Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit”. The movie doesn’t miss a beat when it switches to Hamilton’s story and his scenes add more suspense to the inevitable crossing of paths.
Sheridan and Mackenzie go to great lengths to keep this from being a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ tale. They try hard to keep the black hats off of Toby and Tanner and put them on the banks and the economic system that keeps people down even when they seem to be ahead. This is emphasized when we learn oil was found on the family’s ranch. But I’m not sure the movie does a good enough job keeping the brothers within the grey area it wants them to be in. There are moments when they do try and morally reckon with their crimes and their hardships clearly contribute to their reasoning. But as things intensify it’s hard to know how the movie wants us to feel about them.
There is a pretty significant plot-hole in the final act that I can’t quite shake, but otherwise “Hell or High Water” sticks its landing. The similarities to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” are obvious from the start and there even seems to be a nod to Humphrey Bogart’s “High Sierra”. Those influences add a lot to the film but its strength is in its camera and in its realization of a segment of the country slowly being smothered out. The characters are easy to latch onto and the timely authentic story, while not perfectly told, feels grounded in a very true current reality.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
One of my favorites of the year, and I like more than ‘No Country for Old Men’.
Oooo that’s high praise. I can’t quite go that far (No Country is an all time favorite of mine), but this one is really good and feels strikingly different from any other movie this year.
I liked this one a lot. My respect for Chris Pine grows. I saw him in ‘Finest Hours’ and liked him in that role, too. I agree the final act seems incredulous, but I did like the happening ending. I thought the acting superb.
YES! I’m right there with you. Chris Pine impresses me more and more with each performance. I think there is a lot more to him than I originally gave him credit for.
More than just another pretty face.
This movie gives such a sense of place. You feel like you are there as you’re watching it. The plothole is there but other than that I thought it was about perfectly executed
I think you’re right. The sense of place is very strong. And you never doubted for a second.
I loved Hell or High Water. So much so I probably did overlook (or deliberately ignore….probably more that actually) some of its shortcomings. I’m blanking on the plot hole you mention but a second viewing (which honestly should have happened alresdy given how elated I was leaving this for the first time) might clear some things up. A really fun movie, perhaps not quite worthy of an 8/8 but I’m too stubborn to go back and change it now!
LOL, If you have an 8/8 kind of love for it, stick with it. I can see why. I don’t want to give away the plot hole here mainly because it is in the last act, but I kept wondering when they were going to address it. But there is so much more to the movie than just that. I really appreciated it and it was one of those films that came out of the blue for me.
Great review! I liked this one a lot more than I expected. Foster is Oscar worthy IMO, moreso than Bridges who seems to be getting all the attention.
I thought both were really good. Bridges is channeling a version of his Rooster Cogburn (imo) but it does it so well. Foster falls right into his part. Great performance for sure.
I haven’t sorted my favourite films of the year list yet but I keep thinking this one might crack the top ten; definitely top twenty, at the very least. But not quite a stone-cold classic (and I’d agree with 4 stars). I’m intrigued as to what the plot hole is that you spotted…I think it must have passed me by! Also…this is one of my favourite scores of the year, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; it’s the first one I’ve actually bought on CD in a long while!
Oh yes…the score. Superb for sure. The plot hole is tied to the big ending so I don’t want to give it up here. It really stuck out to me. But that being said, the fact that it didn’t for you is actually a good thing. Others have said the same thing so maybe it isn’t as obvious. I couldn’t quite shake it. Still a fine movie.
Oh Keith you big tease! But very honourable not to put spoilers in the comments! I’m going to have to rewatch it sometime, I probably missed something obvious
I’ll just say it has to do with how the Pine character is where he is at the end of the film. On the other hand, that hint makes no sense…never mind. 🙂
You had me hooked with the words neo western.
It definitely fits that description!
Westerns have never usually been my usual go to movies, but having watched a few old ones I really want to see more.
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