Movie Review: ‘Hell or High Water’ (SECOND OPINION)


Read Slam Adams review right here!


Plot: In order to cover their recently deceased mother’s debt and save their oil rich ranch, Texas brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard rob banks.  However, in a strange twist of justice, the brothers only rob the bank branch that swindled their mother during the nationwide housing collapse.  Meanwhile, soon to retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) begins to piece together who might be robbing the banks.  Along with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) the two law officers must track down Toby and Tanner.  But can that happen without a bloodbath?


Review:  Upon first glance the plot of Hell or High Water seems stereotypical.  It’s a neo-classic Western set in the 21st century that has outlaws challenging evil banks with a lawman trying to bring them to justice.  Based on that alone, you might think this is a tired and overused story that could be mildly entertaining but nothing more.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Hell or High Water succeeds on every level and next to Arrival, is the best film I’ve seen in 2016.  It’s kind of tragic that this movie has flown so far under the radar.  While the film has acquired good word of mouth in the months since its debut and (for what it’s worth) has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%, its limited release in theaters probably hampered its visibility.


Although director David MacKenzie already has an impressive indie resume with critically exclaimed works like Young Adam and Asylum, Hell or High Water is unquestionably his best work.  It’s the film that I hope will catapult him into the limelight.  MacKenzie doesn’t just bear consideration for Best Director come Oscar time, he deserves a nomination period.  The direction here is flawless.  MacKenzie immerses the viewer in early 21st century small town West Texas life, yet there’s a true Western vibe as well.  It is an 1880s feel, just with cars and cell phones.  Yet rather than discordant, it comes across organic.  You also get a real sense of the community and their ideological thinking.  This includes lighter moments such as when Marcus and Alberto are served lunch by a gruff and grizzled waitress or intense situations in the final act where seemingly every citizen packs heat.  Critics often credit directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson as world builders.  MacKenzie also falls into that category, it’s just that Hell or High Water does so on a smaller scale.  However, it’s none the less effective than The Fellowship of the Ring or Avatar.

If any of you thought Taylor Sheridan was a one hit wonder as a screenwriter with last year’s Sicario, think again.  Sheridan (known mainly for his role as Chief Hale on FX’s Sons of Anarchy) delivers a script even better than last year’s Oscar nominated film.  It just works on so many levels.  It’s equal parts modern day Western, buddy comedy, a rumination on the bonds of family, and scathing social commentary.  The bank robbing scenes and (spoiler alert!) final shootout are as gripping as anything you’d see in Tombstone or The Long Riders.  I often laughed at the inappropriately racist (yet hilarious) jokes Marcus hurls at his half Mexican half Native American partner Alberto.  Similarly the more touching moments between Tanner and Toby never ring false.  Quite the contrary, the scenes were often moving especially in reference to their mother’s strained relationship with Tanner.


Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score perfectly matches the tone and timbre of Sheridan’s script.  It has the feel of a Max Steiner score (The Searchers) but with more melancholy.  The score meshes well with Giles Nuttgens’ dusty, vast, and sometimes bleak cinematography.

And the social commentary?  Damn if Hell or High Water isn’t the most socially relevant and timely film of 2016.  Sheridan’s script ranges the gamut from gun control to the collapse of the housing market.  There are so many corollaries to draw from the world of 2016, everything from Standing Rock to Donald Trump’s proposal for a wall at the Mexico border.  It’s uncanny.  Yet the themes are never overbearing or preachy but arise in a very natural and comprehensive form.  In the hands of a screenwriter like Aaron Sorkin, the thematic elements might have been insufferable but not with Sheridan.

Credit where it’s due, Hell or High Water‘s cast delivers in a big way.  Everyone is at the top of their game here.  Birmingham excels as Marcus’ partner Alberto, calmly taking his racial insults with ease, knowing that it’s actually playful banter.  Yet at the same time he feels a real emptiness at the land his people have lost to the white man.  His chemistry with Bridges rivals Glover and Gibson from Lethal Weapon.  Speaking of Bridges, he (in addition to Sheridan and MacKenzie) deserves an Oscar nomination in a supporting role.  There’s just something enigmatic about his character Marcus, a charm, intelligence, wit, and moral compass you can’t help but admire.  Ben Foster also delivers another solid performance as the half-crazy Tanner.  Foster embraces Tanner’s “black sheep of the family” status and goes full outlaw.  While some of the things he does are reprehensible, he’s hilarious and endearing in much the same way Bridges’ Marcus is.


Then there’s Chris Pine.  I was completely blown away.  His portrayal of Toby couldn’t be more of a polar opposite of Pine’s Captain Kirk if you threw in Santa Claus and some polar bears.  Pine delivers a restrained yet nuanced performance.  He’s a man beaten down by life who desperately wants to provide a better future for his children and sees bank robbing as the only way to secure his legacy.  While he constantly chastises Tanner, Toby also displays a fierce love for his brother, even if it’s sometimes sublimated under Texas machismo.  Despite what might be considered a stereotypical rural upbringing, Toby is also very self-aware, not only about himself but about the realities of society as a whole.  In fact there is a scene in the closing moments between Bridges and Pine that aptly describes how poverty is a disease passed down from father to son.  I was hanging on every word and it was just as engaging as any firefight in Hell or High Water.

It’s not hyperbole to say I was blown away by Hell or High Water.  MacKenzie’s film is a stunning cinematic achievement with impeccable acting, brilliant writing, and flawless direction.  I can’t recommend it enough.  Don’t miss it.


My rating System:

0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
3 Bad
4 Sub Par
5 Average
6 Ok
7 Good
8 Very Good
9 Great
10 A Must See

My rating:  10/10

Would I:  A) Buy this movie B) Accept as a gift C) Burn on site  Answer: B

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