Scott F. Evans
It has been a rather bleak summer for movies in 2016, filled with expendable remakes and banal sequels. As a matter of fact, most of the better films of the season have actually been smaller, original pieces. One of the best might just be Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, with a script by Taylor Sheridan. It’s a terrific little crime film layered over a character study and social commentary. If that’s not enough, it’s also a modern day Western.
In a nutshell, Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers who rob banks across West Texas, while on the run from a pair of Texas Rangers. On the surface it’s a fairly simple story, but once you begin to peel away the layers, the film becomes considerably more complex. It’s not some high-octane thriller, nor is it completely plot driven. The film succeeds at both, and presents some stunning character work by the entire cast. Mackenzie offers solid but unobtrusive direction. He and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shoot beautiful vistas that pay homage to John Ford, while presenting the moral and literal bankruptcy of the New West.
Sheridan’s screenplay is what really drives Hell or High Water. The plot teeters right at the edge of convolution, but the characters are interesting enough to keep the audience engaged and willing to go along for the ride. Sheridan includes some witty wordplay that is unquestionably offensive, but perfectly suited to the the nature of the characters.
Hell or High Water is also an actor’s piece. The cast provides the final element that makes this film work so well. Chris Pine does some of the best work of his career as Toby Howard, the younger of the two brothers. He anchors the film with a somber, thoughtful performance. Ben Foster is the elder Tanner Howard. Foster exercises precise restraint to keep from coming completely unhinged and falling into shtick.
Jeff Bridges nearly resurrects Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) as the aging Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Although Hamilton is a collection of clichés, Bridges elevates the character to keep him from becoming just another trope. Rounding out the cast is Gil Birmingham as Hamilton’s long suffering partner Alberto Parker. He and Bridges get some of the best lines in the film.
Hell or High Water is definitely worth a watch on the big screen. At just over 90 minutes, it delivers more story and character than films with twice the run-time and ten times the budget.