David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a wonderful modern Western film with the added flavor of a noir-heist. It is also wildly funny in subtle and smart ways but isn’t above low-brow pot shots, either. The performances from all four leads are superb and myriad character actors flesh out the environment. Finally, the film sports a fantastic plot that unravels at a deliberate pace and has a lot of surprises up its sleeves. It is like a slice of West Texas on screen, from the cattle wranglers to the gun-toting vigilantes. Hell or High Water is a potent piece of cinema, and will likely end up as one of the strongest films of 2016.
Revealing too much of the plot of Hell or High Water saps some of its power, as the film endeavors to dole out information piecewise. But the basic idea is simple: a pair of brothers named Toby and Tanner Howard are robbing small branches of a West Texas bank, and a soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger named Marcus Hamilton picks up the case so that he doesn’t have to retire yet. It is clear from the get-go that Toby and Tanner have a set goal in mind, but the details are fuzzy. The mood and the momentum of the story are evident from the opening sequence, and it is a real treat to pull the thread.
The story is strong, but it is propelled forward by four spectacular characters: two on the right side of the law and two on the wrong side. Toby Howard is played by Chris Pine, his older brother Tanner is portrayed by Ben Foster. Tanner is a jailbird and the man who brings criminal expertise to the operation, whereas Toby seems to be the brains. Throughout the film there are great moments of characterization between the two, like an early encounter with a punk. But where the characters are good, the acting is astounding. If this film does not convince you that Chris Pine is being wasted in Star Trek, then nothing will. Foster’s accent initially feels over-the-top, until you realize it is actually lulling you into the voice of the film and that there are far more severe accents to experience later.
Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton, and he’s the standard police man who is one week from retirement. He’s actually a Texas Ranger, and never feels like a caricature or trope for some reason I can’t quite place. His partner is Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), and works as both support, comic punching bag, and foil. The relationship they have mirrors the chemistry and love of the brothers, but it more based on professional respect than shared experiences. They’re both insanely smart and funny, and prove to be a capable answer to the bank-robbing brothers. Again, the acting is impeccable. Bridges talks a bit like he has marbles in his mouth, but he’s just an old-timer from Texas so you get over it quickly. And for his part, Birmingham holds his own opposite the Oscar-winner.
The pacing of the Western can be a curious thing, and leans to the slower side on account of its more rural and spread-out stories. Hell or High Water embraces this pace but remains exhilarating nonetheless by making certain that each and every sequence in the film plays a purpose. As mentioned previously, there is a distinct noir feel to the narrative, as elements of the heist plan are slowly revealed until we finally understand everything by the very end. It is a fun ride, and features some thoughtful plotting that will impress fans of the crime drama genre.
Thematically, Hell or High Water attacks the idea of predatory lending and bankers in general a little too directly for my taste. It also comes from multiple characters, which can get a little tiring. Other thematic foci are more warm and subtle, including the challenges of senescence, and the power of familial love (especially between brothers). There’s also a wonderful, West-Texas self sufficiency and bravado throughout this film that is both odd and alluring. All of these themes dance off each other impressively, and I want to make clear that this is not just an entertaining heist film. It has a great deal to say as well, and the full breadth of the ideas likely makes Hell or High Water the kind of film you can revisit many times.
While it is rare that a film plays the right notes from the opening scene to the closing credits, Hell or High Water is just such a film. David Mackenzie blends elements of the western, heist, and noir genres with a fair amount of sardonic wit, and the performances are top-notch all the way from the four leads down to the smaller character actors. In a year bereft of powerful blockbusters, the best indie flicks have been absolutely stellar so far. Add Hell or High Water to the list, maybe at the very top.