Hell or High Water

 photo hell_or_high_water_zpshgdreiqe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgI’m pleasantly surprised. David Mackenzie’s neo-Western wasn’t even on my radar. I generally don’t expect much from the second week of August. That’s kind of a dead period for movie releases. The summer is winding down. Kids are gearing up for back-to-school and most major film studios have already issued their heavy hitters. Lionsgate is not one of the “Big Six” studios, so maybe it’s not surprising that such an awards-worthy production (and potential blockbuster) would have such an atypical release date. However Lionsgate IS the largest and most successful mini-major studio in North America, so I wouldn’t exactly classify them as an indie either. Regardless, I was prompted to watch this on a good recommendation. I’m so glad I did.

Since the traditional Western takes place in the later half of the 19th century, I probably shouldn’t place Hell or High Water in that genre. The setting is present-day West Texas. The American frontier setting certainly confuses things. It’s unquestionably a heist picture. On that everyone will agree. The story is simple. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster respectively) plan a series of robberies targeting various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in an effort to buy back their family farm. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in hot pursuit along with his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The narrative details a series of stick-ups like you’d find in an old western but set in today’s modern day Texas. Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material. He is brilliant at establishing characters. His last movie, the underseen British prison drama Starred Up, also excelled in this area. Naturally a lot of credit should also go to the crackerjack script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Gradually the screenwriter reveals layers to these brothers, Toby and Tanner. At first the two appear to be one and the same – bank robbers. As the chronicle develops, we’re given motives and backstories and emotional temperaments that play out in little dialogues with various people along the way. Each vignette uncovers more depth to these people. A flirtatious conversation with Toby from a waitress (a noteworthy Katy Mixon) in a diner, is deceptively mundane taken at face value. Yet her wistful exchange exposes a heartbreaking yearning for so much more in her life.

She’s merely one component in an incredible ensemble. Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton. The grizzled, old fashioned Texas ranger is not such a stretch for the veteran actor anymore. Still, he’s wonderful. Ditto his partner Alberto Parker, a marshal whose half-Comanche/half-Mexican roots are subject to his constant teasing. The focus revolves around their pursuit of the brothers. The younger duo is united in the same dirty business, but they are rather different. Ben Foster has always been a bit of a chameleon. He’s mesmerizing. His portrayal is just as intense as you’d expect. However Chris Pine’s soulful work is the performance of his career. His understated achievement is so quietly expressive. I thought I knew the actor. He’s a revelation.

In this account, no one person is all good or all bad. Toby and Tanner are clearly in the wrong. Yet we are given valid reasons to hate these financial institutions – the source of foreclosed houses and crushed dreams. Are these brothers a modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not exactly, although you’d be forgiven for making the connection. Rooting for these guys is similarly problematic, but this is a tale with even deeper shades of gray. There are so many surprises. One violent altercation inadvertently provides a cogent defense for carrying a concealed weapon. The mentality of the vigilante perspective is presented so rationally, I was a bit taken aback. There’s sort of an odd mix of emotion that fluctuates wildly between compassion and disgust for these lawbreakers. Sympathy turns to aversion over the course of the narrative. It’s the way these little unforeseen vignettes plays out that make this character study so captivating.  One of the most noteworthy dramas of 2016.


22 Responses to “Hell or High Water”

  1. smilingldsgirl Says:

    Looks like another indie winner to save the summer! Last year there was another good Western called Slow West and we have Magnificent 7 coming up so it seems like the genre is having a resurgence. Glad to hear Ben Foster is good after how terrible he was in Warcraft


    • And regarding Westerns, don’t forget last year’s 3 time Oscar winner The Revenant!

      Liked by 1 person

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        True! I didnt even think of that.


      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        I just saw it and I’d say it’s about perfectly made. I was drawn in and the acting was great. You are right about there not really being heroes or villains. I also appreciated the depth of the cast. The dialogue between Jeff Bridges and his partner was so well done. It felt like an authentic relationship. I guess if I was to nitpick it seemed like the ranger should have been able to figure out the reverse mortgage motive


      • I love the way director David Mackenzie goes back and forth between both the Rangers and well as the two brothers. He extracts such suspense.

        The way the Rangers tease one another belie the closeness of their relationship that could only develop from years of working together.

        So glad you saw (and enjoyed) this. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was rooting for the bad guys and the good guys. I too was surprised at how good this was. Very good performances. 4 stars.


  3. Great review. I also found the shades of gray to be its strong point. You sympathize with everyone and no one.


  4. I’m a big fan of David Mackenzie stuff, Mark. I’m quite surprised he’s tackling this genre but It looks and sounds great all the same. Fine review my friend.


  5. I want to jump with joy. So glad you saw this and loved it!! It just is endlessly entertaining G with the performances, but there’s so much more to dig into beyond the fun. It’s a really interesting morality play, and now it has just made Starred Up a must-watch for me. This was so good. I wish I had mentioned Gil Birmingham more in my review, too. He is gonna go underrated here.


  6. Thrilled to hear that you were pleasantly surprised by Hell or High Water. I’m shocked that it wasn’t on your radar. It’s definitely a heist picture with heavy influence from Westerns. I agree that Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material and that he’s brilliant at establishing characters. Everyone feels so layered and complex in this tale, which I love. I also agree that Ben Foster is mesmerizing and that Chris Pine gives the performance of his career with this soulful turn. I really appreciate that no one person is all good or bad. The shades of grey make things interesting. This is one of my favorite films from 2016. Definitely in my top five.


  7. Well you most certainly have sold this film to me Mark. What a stellar review.


  8. This is one of my top films of this year. I liked how the script and the performances added complexity to the trope of immoral criminals.

    I would appreciate if you would check out my 100 Word Review at https://scribblesofstageandscreen.com/2016/12/16/hell-or-high-water-black-comedy-road-movie-with-heart-100-word-review/


    • It’s now showing up on many critics year-end Top 10 lists. Somewhat surprising that one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year was released at the tail end of the summer. Glad it got noticed because it’s really great.

      Liked by 1 person

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