“Hell or High Water” Movie Review

Brilliance. Absolute, unhinged, mindblowing brilliance. Director David Mackenzie’s neo-western heist-crime drama was released on August 12th, 2016, grossing $31 million against its $12 million budget, heaped with rave reviews following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Written by former actor Taylor Sheridan, the script had been tossed around for the better of half a decade until it won the annual Black List. We follow two brothers, Toby and Tanner, struggling to save their family’s old farm from financial foreclosure. In order to do this, they rob a string of fictional banks across West Texas, attracting the ire of one determined Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement. While that premise may sound thin and uninteresting on the surface, it is executed in the most engrossing and believable way possible. For starters, you become invested in all of the characters that appear onscreen. It’s not as simple as “Good law enforcement agents have to track down Evil bank robbers” or vice versa. Every person introduced was as full-bodied and layered as any human being you would probably meet. Their motivations make sense, and each character gives enough logistics to back their stance on certain issues and circumstances. The relationship between the two brothers is key to this entire movie’s function. If you didn’t gravitate towards either of these two, or the actors playing them did terrible, this whole film would just become forgettable. Thankfully, everyone working on the movie realized this importance, and it totally works. They carried a lot of the story, even when they didn’t have to. You can tell there’s an element of resentment, but they have to trust each other because they’re family; they have to get through these problems together. The frustration of the economy has forced these two to realize that the only way they can truly keep the memory of their family alive is to break the laws and steal back from the banks, whom they feel are actually stealing the land from natural owners. This is a fantastic showcase for Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s acting abilities. We already know Pine’s steely charisma from the Star Trek franchise and his surprising musical turn in Disney’s Into The Woods. But Foster has not had a chance to prove himself as a great actor; he deserves more name recognition. However, in a universe where supporting characters can completely steal the show, Jeff Bridges as the Ranger Hamilton is definitely award-worthy. At this point, he pretty much plays the exact character you think he would be: a cowboy-like macho man with a chip on his shoulder and a nearly incomprehensible Texan accent to boot. But he is so natural at his craft that he transcends the difference between actor and character. Though he can come across as bigoted, Bridges brings enough heart to this Ranger to score himself a possible nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And when I say this is a western, I mean it in every sense of the word. No, nobody in the movie rides into a small town on horseback, bent on restoring it to its former glory. (Ahem, The Magnificent Seven) Rather, the characters in Hell or High Water are planted in modern day, and cross wires in a hunt for treasure and glory across a sweeping land of desert wilderness. Even its title sounds Texan. During one of the brothers’ bank robberies, a group of men gather in a posse to fend them off… with guns of their own. It made me laugh at the circumstance, and it honestly raises the question as to whether the screenwriter is an advocate of the N.R.A. Although they’re more affiliated with experimental rock from the late 20th century, musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis broaden their horizons by composing the musical score of this film. Low-key but not unmemorable, the violin and guitar-heavy soundtrack solidifies the western vibe, even when there are occasionally intense gunfights. But gunfights are not actually what sell this movie. The driving force behind Hell or High Water is the dialogue and character development, both of which are written really well. Not since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has a Hollywood movie been so focused on realistic conversations to accelerate the story. This is a western. That should never happen in a genre like that. Taylor Sheridan eschews that mindset of illogical gun battles in favor of three-dimensional characters. All of this adds up to make Hell or High Water one of the most surprising and overlooked film to come out in 2016. And also one of the best. It’s a completely satisfying story that is confidently paced from start to finish, with David Mackenzie’s immense passion channeled into every frame of every scene. I urge you to find a streaming service or video rental to find this movie and watch it… come hell or high water. There I said it. Happy? I couldn’t hold it any longer.

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