Genre: Crime, Drama
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
A modern day western, Hell or High Water is a terrifically simplistic yet highly effective crime thriller from director David MacKenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (whose last scripted film was the equally western style influenced and equally impressive Sicario).
Chris Pine is Toby, the head strong divorced father of two struggling to do right by his children, who along with his ex-con brother, Tanner (a terrific Ben Foster), takes a gleaming tour of the flat sun-baked landscapes and dust-filled near ghost towns of West Texas to rob the bank that’s been robbing them. Jeff Bridges is the suitably grizzled and world-weary Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who sets out to catch these two brothers even if it’s the last thing he does. Along for the ride is his half-Mexican, half-native American partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whose constant bickering and brotherly teasing make for a nice flip-side to Toby and Tanner’s somewhat tense, yet complex interplay.
Make no mistake, Hell or High Water is without a doubt one of the highlights of the filmgoing year, and by far and away one of the best American movies in recent years. A throwback to the lean, muscular, hard bitten American cinema of the 1970s, yet holding much socio-political context, Mackenzie and Sheridan have crafted a thrilling heist film that may be simple in design but is textured with rich characters and emotions – and often times quite amusing – interplay between its four main players, whilst placing them in a superbly handled narrative.Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens make effective use of the stark, Texas landscape, which seems to consist of nothing more than grit and grizzle. Sheridan’s dialogue is peppered with an acidic wit, particularly in the interplay between Bridges and Birmingham’s Rangers as they hunt for the two brothers, bringing much levity to a narrative that could’ve easily fallen into deep melancholy. Mackenzie also handles the heist scenes incredibly well, igniting them with bursts of loud and visceral violence that inform the narrative rather than simply appear out of generic need.
With a drama such as this, it also helps that you have three performers at the top of their game, with Chris Pine giving a career best performance as the desperate and seemingly stable brother Toby, whilst Ben Foster shines in the sort of role that he has made a niche for himself over the years. Yet rather than playing Tanner as the expected wild card, Foster brings a nuance to the role, eventually allowing us to warm to a character that could’ve easily been two dimensional. Bridges meanwhile is excellent in a role that we’ve seen him play time and time again, but he’s got such a handle on it, that it doesn’t matter. He shines regardless.
Hell or High Water may seem familiar but when a film is this engrossing and this skilfully made, then everything old seems new again. A definite must see and one of the highlights of 2016.