Movie Review: Hell or High Water
R | 1h 42min
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan (screenplay)
Stars: Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine
by Jason Koenigsberg
It took all the way until late August for Pan and Slam to give the first four star review of a movie in 2016. The deeply profound, poetic, and gorgeously shot Hell or High Water is one of the best films of the year so far. It has all of the elements of a classic John Wayne western cleverly inserted into a culturally relevant crime movie that has an old time feel yet is very much a movie for right now.
The opening shot is a glorious one. We see an empty street with some red, white and blue banners hanging from a building then a blue car pulls up and the camera follows it down and around the street. This long 360 degree shot reveals that we are in Texas, we see crosses illustrating Southern values, a bank, and the shot ends with a woman being held at gun point by two masked men.
The actors are really outstanding and the three main leads all deliver exceptional performances. Ben Foster and Chris Pine play brothers that go on a bank robbing spree. Foster is more of the loose cannon and has lived his life in and out of prison. Pine is more humanistic and the smarter, more straight laced of the two, yet has moments where he can unleash a darker side with violent outbursts. Both of their Texas accents are on point. Also, these actors convey a sense of desperation as they rob. It is later revealed that these brothers face real twenty-first century problems that many middle and working class Americans face. These criminals become easy to relate to because they are just trying to pay off a debt they owe to a bank and break even, not become millionaires or anything extravagant.
Jeff Bridges plays an old Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement trying to track down these small time bank robbers. At first one might think Bridges laid back, often comical performance is just a retread of his Rooster Cogburn from True Grit (2010) but as the film progresses and his character slowly develops, more layers are revealed and by the end, once again Bridges has given another strong and convincing performance to his already stellar resume. The screenplay does a great job paralleling the Texas Rangers with the bank robbers.
I mentioned above that the cinematography was gorgeous. A lot of the shots early on slyly depict a United States suffering from an economic recession. This is not a beautifully shot film by conventional standards, but one that really feels like a modern western as we follow these bank robbers and the Texas Rangers on their trail. The photography also captures the conditions the characters are living in. There are some shots where you can almost feel the dry heat beating down on us.
Hell or High Water also features a great music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that is used sparingly but very effectively and never patronizes the audience into telling them how they should feel. It allows the actors and the camera to do that, which is very refreshing after a lot of the bombastic soundtracks from some of the recent blockbusters.
The filmmakers tried to cram in every western cliche they could with bank robbing, chase scenes, shoot outs, gambling, shacking up with a woman, and the old sheriff. The good news is, it all worked. It took a very simple concept with no original ideas and created a smart entertaining two hours. Oddly enough the script along with the very believable performances even managed to squeeze in some moments of genuine humor that had most of the audience laughing out loud when you might least expect it.
The final shot is just as great as the opening one where we see an oil derrick pumping the land for a crude resource that has already caused so much death and the camera pans down low into the grass as if we are seeing a snakes point of view and reminds us that the evil and violence is still lurking.
Hell or High Water has a lot of strong elements, but the best aspect of it was how it works as a smart social commentary on our reliance of banks and how big businesses are slowly destroying the middle class. The film even threw in other cultural references dealing with a bad economy, guns and oil, all of which are topics we hear about on the news, from the candidates running for President and that effect people in the USA, and especially Texas, on a daily basis. Hell or High Water is an ingenious piece of filmmaking with the way it took old elements of westerns, showing them to be universal and timeless and making them socially relevant in 2016, therefore making Hell or High Water one of the best movies of 2016 so far.