Despite the massive gap in their public release schedules, I actually watched Hell Or High Water and Magnificent Seven just one day apart. This pairing couldn’t be more fortuitous. I walked into cinema for the latter expecting a remake of a grand western, only to get nothing more than a brash modern action movie. With Hell or High Water though, I got a masterfully engineered contemporary action drama that for all intents and purposes was just a couple horses (though there is some horsepower on display) and spurs short of being an actual western. Hell, they even have a drawling Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger in a Stetson hat for added authenticity!
Bridges’ soon-to-be-retired Ranger Marcus Hamilton and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) find themselves on the trail of a pair of modern day robbers who are hitting up sleepy banks in tiny West Texas towns. Said robbers are brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively), a mismatched, previously estranged pair of siblings with a very personal reason beyond simple greed for their inexplicably sudden taste for communal larceny. Mild-mannered divorced father Toby has meticulously planned out every step of their intended days long crime spree, but hellraiser Tanner puts everything at risk with his volatile nature, setting the brothers on a collision course with each other as well as the Rangers on their heels.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario, Sons of Anarchy) script unfolds at a deliberately controlled pace, strategically unspooling the narrative of what drives the Tanner brothers to become criminals. There are no verbal diarrhea exposition dumps here. Plot points are revealed exactly when they need to be, with assured confidence of knowing the audience doesn’t need everything explained to them. And while bang-bang bank shootouts and high speed muscle car chases occur, shot with solid streaks of grit and tension by director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), he also shows off the filmmaking maturity to know that these kinetic diversions are just that: diversions (though entertaining ones at that).
The real allure of this piece are the sun-baked characters, all wonderfully realized and engrossing in their makeup. Toby just achingly wants to do right by the loved ones in his life, even if that love is unrequited; Tanner is a walking powder keg, that explosiveness disguising a dark tragedy; and Hamilton’s constant bristly, prejudiced ribbing of Parker’s Native American/Mexican heritage, coupled with Parker’s constant reminders of Hamilton’s imminent date with a boring rocking chair on a porch, hides a deeply intimate friendship with a big emotional payoff. But the biggest character in the film tying them all together is the broken, ragged-toothed ruins of Americana that serves as the canvas upon which this story plays out.
This is post-2008 economic collapse USA taken to its extreme(ly logical) conclusion – a place of dried up, dusty dreams and rusted oil derrick carcasses, where poverty is a hereditary disease. A bleak and barren landscape where honest men are forced to desperate deeds in order to claw out of the situation they find themselves in. Mackenzie builds up this ever-looming “character” to add an undeniably tangible solemnity to each scene, but still manages to inject vital sparks of life into this piece so that it’s not just 100-minutes of grim brow beating. This is still Texas after all, where bank clientele carry more firepower than most bank robbers and a pickup truck posse is just a holler away.
On top of that, a uniformly excellent showing from the entire cast – but in particular Pine in a fantastically layered, introspective performance – means that despite its sun-baked, desolate setting, Hell or High Water has a wealth of emotional and intellectual material to mine. It is most definitely a message movie though, wearing its social and economical criticisms way out on its sleeve. However, when the message is conveyed with this much expertly crafted precision, then I gladly grant it its time on the soapbox.
There’s no denying though that folks looking for ADHD jollifications will more than likely have to find their kicks elsewhere, as Mackenzie and Sheridan deliberately pace events. But if you’re looking for an adult, character driven western revival that languidly lingers with you long after the credits have rolled, then you have to see this, one of 2016’s best, come hell or high water.
Last Updated: November 4, 2016