Hot Take: Hell or High Water takes a simple concept and layers it with complex, colorful characters, moral dilemmas and social commentary. It’s so much more than a “cops and robbers” movie or a modern Western. One of the best of 2016!
With Hell or High Water, Oscar season has come early in 2016. There’s plenty to laud in this “cops and robbers” potboiler about brothers who become bank robbers in an effort to rob the bank then pay them back with their own money. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the Howard brothers. Pine is fantastic as Toby, the younger of the two. He’s divorced with two kids and took care of his mother right before her passing and now faces financial hardship as the bank is days away from foreclosing on the family farm. Foster is equally great as Tanner, the older brother. He’s an ex-con who killed their abusive father and has a quick temper.
The brothers are a contrast in lifestyles. Toby is a man pushed to the edge. He’s done everything in his power to keep his head above water but nothing seems to be working. The scheme to rob the banks to save his family farm and give it to his kids in hopes for a better life for them is Toby’s last ditch effort to, in his mind, do right by his family. In order to pull off the scheme, he needs to enlist the help of his brother Tanner who is, essentially, a loose cannon. Given up a long time ago on doing things the right way, Tanner initially appears to be in it for the thrill but as the movie progresses and the pair interact, the bond between these two brothers is evident as is Tanner’s willingness to do anything to help his brother.
In the middle of all of this is Ranger Marcus Hamilton impeccably played by Jeff Bridges. Bridges’ performance here is one of his best. That’s saying a lot as his resume includes his turn as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, “Bad” Blake in Crazy Heart and Rooster Cogburn in the remake of True Grit. Leaving out of a few of his others even feels like Bridges is being shortchanged here. Hamilton is close to retirement but he and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are given the assignment to investigate these robberies as the money taken isn’t enough to alert bigger law enforcement. These two have a different relationship and it’s hard to read how Alberto feels about Marcus’ inappropriate ribbing but it’s clear that Marcus’s job as a Ranger is his life and he values their partnership, even if he has an odd way of showing it.
As the plot thickens, the audience gets a deeper look into each of the characters without ever feeling dragged away from the potboiler of a plot the film has going. It’s superbly written by Taylor Sheridan. That’s 2-for-2 for Sheridan who made his feature film début with Sicario last year and has improved upon it with Hell or High Water. The direction from David Mackenzie is equally excellent. While unfamiliar with Mackenzie’s previous work, this modern take on a Western puts the rest of Mackenzie’s work on the watch list.
It’s hard to not continue to gush about how enthralling Hell or High Water is. Pine, Foster or Bridges could all be nominated for their performances. As could Sheridan for his screenplay or Mackenzie for his directing. The ending is one of the best we’ve seen in the 2000s and owes it all to some of the best character development in the last decade. It should be of no surprise as Sheridan delivered an similar build and high stakes ending in Sicario just last year.
Personally, Hell or High Water falls just short of the top movie of 2016 with Sing Street still edging it out. However, right now, it feels more like 1a and 1b than 2 and I doubt I’d fight you long on why I thought Sing Street was a slightly better film. Heck, I’m still not sure I’m convinced I’ve got it right. Having one over the other doesn’t feel right now matter how I settle on the two. That being said, Hell or High Water is a film you shouldn’t miss.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Performances
Come Oscar season, if Pine, Foster or Bridges find their names on the list of Oscar nominees, this would not be a bad thing. Pine’s brooding, introspective performance is probably the best as Foster’s turn occasionally feels slightly over-the-top but Bridges has been there a few times and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for him would be the best bet of the three.
- The Writing
Taylor Sheridan is a name to seek out when it comes to screenwriters. His next film will be Wind River and is due out in 2017. It will also mark his directorial début. With Sicario and Hell or High Water as his first two attempts, Wind River is already on the list of most anticipated films of 2017.
- A Balance of Plot, Action and Commentary
Hell or High Water is a perfect blend of everything you want in a movie. The plot is simple and not unique in the least. However, the blend of action and character development sprinkled with social commentary on the economy, guns and big banking make it unique and special. Plus, there’s the bond of family and the bond of two men who work side by side together in one of the most dangerous jobs there is that build on the emotional stakes. It’s spectacularly done.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- It’s a Man’s World
If you’re one to get offended by a lack of strong female characters, you might want to sit this one out. You’ll be missing out, though.