Hell or High Water is an entertaining visit into the western that has a modern flair and characters to make it a memorable entry.
Hell or High Water is an interesting movie it’s not really a crime thriller. In fact, the heist scenes felt like an afterthought — save for the centerpiece climax. What it’s really about is relationships, how we interact with the people around us, and how are actions are indicative of our experiences. Led by four truly fantastic performances, Hell or High Water is a modern western that feels so in and of its time. Though, it also feels like its roots are dug deep into the genre.
Hell or High Water tells the story of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). Their family farm is being threatened with foreclosure following their mother’s passing because of a reverse mortgage that was given out by Texas Midlands bank. With only a few days until the bank seizes the property, the brothers go on a series of bank robberies – Texas Midlands banks to be precise – to pay off the mortgage. However, close on their tail are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
What makes Hell or High Water so endearing is that it carefully treads on the line of satire. I’ve never been to West Texas, but if I had to imagine what it was like, it would probably be this ridiculous version. People say things like “if I can find a rope short enough” and “you’re not even Mexicans!” Even more hilariously, literally every single person has a gun.
Another element that takes Hell or High Water from entertaining to a smart piece of film is it’s not so subtle subtext about recession-era America. Small towns, big banks, and unpayable mortgages have become the key actors in the housing bubble burst. Just ask Margot Robbie while she sits in a bathtub. While this is every bit a crime movie, that theme shines through.
However, this is also where my criticism lies. While subtlety usually isn’t the forte of westerns, Hell or High Water really hits you over the head with its themes. From giant flashy bankruptcy billboards to lines that all but say “stick it to the man,” the film doesn’t leave much to the imagination.
What does show a little subtlety are the scenes between characters. After all, this is a movie about two partnerships. The relationship between Toby and Tanner isn’t one built on their experiences together. If anything, this spree of bank robberies is their first experience that really brings them together. Their bond is more instinctual. Tanner knows he has to protect his younger brother. He knows the part that he plays in their story.
The relationship between Marcus and Alberto is both more complex and interesting. Like any western, ball-busting is expected. But the banter between these two, which is sometimes openly racist, doesn’t let on the care that these two have for each other. Though we only see a few days of their lives, the care they have for each other runs deep. You can tell that their collective experiences together have bonded them in the same way brothers are. While much of Jeff Bridges’ performance is this outlandish stereotypical sheriff, there are some scenes of nuance.
Taylor Sheridan, whose screenwriting debut was last year’s Sicario, isn’t the striking new screenwriter around. But there’s something endearing about the stories and characters he creates. Look at Emily Blunt’s play-it-by-the-book FBI agent who is out of her depth or Jeff Bridges’ cantankerous cop on the edge of retirement. They’re two completely different characters, but Sheridan instills a quality that feels real in both of them. That carries over to other characters in Hell or High Water, even those with little screentime. Sheridan and director David Mackenzie make the characters feel lived in. Everyone from the four main roles to the waitress at the diner felt like fleshed out people with lives outside of the timeline of the movie.
That being said, so much of the success of the movie has to be accredited to the four main actors. Ben Foster’s dedicated performance seems one-note, but small moments like seeing his mother’s hospital bed adds complexity. Chris Pine has never seemed like an actor in the business for the art. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems like he took the time to perfect the character. Gil Birmingham has the hard role of playing the straight man to Bridges’ outlandish Texas Ranger. However, he handles himself with ease. But, it is really Jeff Bridges in the role that he was born to play that steals the entire movie. Long drawn out shots of his face hint at something more sincere in his tough guy facade.
Overall, Hell or High Water works as a modern western because it is just that. It takes the elements of the genre – the cat-and-mouse chase, shootouts – and applies it to a timely setting. Unlike earlier entries in the genre, the movie blurs the line between good and bad and right and wrong. While it’s completely entertaining, it’s that added layer that makes Hell or High Water completely satisfying.