Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster
Divorced father Toby (Pine) enlists the help of his hot-headed ex-con brother Tanner (Foster) to rob branches of the bank that is about to foreclose his family ranch, with the intention to save the ranch and secure a future for his son. However they must outwit a crafty and veteran local Texas Ranger (Bridges) who would love one last big arrest before his retirement.
I do always say it is not necessarily the actual plot itself that is most important (though a good plot helps of course), but how that actual plot is presented that makes for a good film to really engage with. At its core, Hell or High Water contains quite a simple and frequently used Western/ heist movie plot that could have so easily been a generic and lazy film with forgettable characters and big, loud (but also boring) action sequences.
Well, while watching Hell or High Water it is obvious that writer Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie are very much making the film they want to make, and not one decided by suited studio executives, focus groups or spreadsheets. The result is a very much tried-and-tested story depicted in a very measured and intelligent way that not only makes for a story that is deeply engrossing, but also one that contains some very intelligent themes and ideas that will linger long in the memory of the viewer after the credits have finished rolling.
With British prison drama Starred Up (review), director David Mackenzie certainly proved to be very skilful at creating a genuinely tense cinematic atmosphere and getting committed, masculine performances from his actors. Well, he may have changed the setting to Texas, but Mackenzie has managed to create the same atmosphere and get the same type of performances. In fact, through Mackenzie’s static and often slowly panning camerawork and some of themes the film explores, the location of the film may be extremely sparse and open, but in some ways also serves as a prison to both the film’s main characters, but also the broader themes that the narrative explores within its subtext. Giles Nuttgen’s sun-drenched cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ sombre music add to the atmosphere and tone of the film.
Sheridan’s script is exceptional, and in my view deserves an Oscar nomination, as it achieves on the whole a great balancing act of having the right amount of character development, exposition and appropriate humour. Both the character development and exposition are delivered in an intentionally measured way; we gradually get to know the characters and understand the motivations behind their actions as the film and plot develop.
For a film with such a character driven narrative, it is of course important to have characters that are both sympathetic and engaging, and Hell or High Water does skilfully achieve this as the characters on both sides of the law do emerge as sympathetic and likeable. This of course then makes us the viewer conflicted while watching the film, and only serves to make it even more engaging, especially as it is very hard to predict exactly how certain scenes are going to play out.
One of the reasons that the film is also very entertaining and highly watchable is the humour, which is often as dry as the open Texas scenery. It is very much based around the dialogue and interplay between the characters, and is often absolutely hilarious, but yet is always appropriately judged and never undermines the overall narrative. It does however only enhance both our engagement with the characters and also just how watchable the film is. It should certainly not be underestimated just how impressive a balancing act Taylor Sheridan has achieved in managing to get the darker, more serious themes and the humour to only ever complement one another.
Another vital aspect as to why Hell or High Water works so well are the note perfect performances; Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster all excel in their unique roles. Though once again adopting the scenery chewing accent he used in True Grit, Jeff Bridges puts aside memories of some recent bad performances in bad films (R.I.P.D., The Giver, Seventh Son) to remind us that he can be a very charismatic screen presence. Here he delivers a performance of perfect comic timing, while also convincing as a character that has a calculating and killer edge to him if the situation requires it. He also shares great on-screen chemistry with Gil Birmingham as his colleague Alberto Parker in what has to be the most memorable on-screen bromance of 2016!
Chris Pine and Ben Foster as excel as the brothers who are the respective brains and brawn of the operation. The taut storytelling helps with making their characters both engaging and likeable, but both actors embody their characters with utter conviction while sharing a great on-screen chemistry. Ben Foster in particular is as unpredictable as the narrative itself, only adding to the genuine sense of intrigue and tension.
As the narrative develops very much on its own terms, though there is of course the odd inevitable cliché and contrivance, while the allegorical aspect of the narrative is slightly overdone and repetitive, therefore slightly undermining its potency and pertinence. However both Sheridan and Mackenzie remain in total control of their film with a very effective approach that is often sadly lacking in so many films of this genre these days, and include an ending that is tonally appropriate and deeply satisfying.
A genuinely tense, engaging and often hilarious film that refuses to resort to the lazy clichés that so many films of this genre do; Hell or High Water is a film made on its own terms the old-fashioned way but with very much a modern and prevalent setting, and emerges all the better for it.