HELL OR HIGH WATER

Films that try to deal with actual real world issues are tough to handle, as your message is in danger of coming off as too blatant. Subtlety is key, especially when your themes deal with something like the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, if the story and characters are there, everything may turn out to be okay. In Hell or High Water, West Texas brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) reunite after the former gets out of prison. Toby’s farm, which sits on a large surplus of oil, is in danger of being foreclosed on by the bank. He comes up with a scheme where he and his brother will rob banks for the cash, but once they hit a few, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is soon on the case and on the chase.

All of the actors have fantastic chemistry with each other, whether it be our main stars, or the bit players. Ben Foster and Chris Pine are both great, really selling the brotherly relationship. They argue, play, mess around, and have heartfelt moments with each other. As different as they are personality and goal wise, it still feels like a fully realized relationship. The same goes for Jeff Bridges and his ranger partner, who feel like they’ve been stuck with each other for years. Constant teasing and berating between the two, but a true professional friend and partnership. Bridges continues to prove that he’s one of the finest American actors around, with his incredibly realistic performance as a surly Texas Ranger with a heart of gold. There’s a lot of layered characterization that doesn’t rely on a bunch of exposition. However, I felt like the film could have used about 10-15 minutes in the first act to really set everything up, as you’re really thrown into the action from the get go.

Not only are you drawn in by the story, but the cinematography and direction are also fantastic. Director David Mackenzie and cinematographer Niles Nuttgens manage to make West Texas the biggest character of the movie. Vast shots of open, deserted landscapes, with dilapidated houses lining the roads. Small towns, banks, and farms with kooky locals. I love when the general setting of the movie can feel so alive and be a character in and of itself. You’re immediately immersed into the location and feel like you’re right there. This is assisted by the fantastic musical score that fills you with a sense of dread, especially during the tense bank robbery scenes. Luckily, the film doesn’t get too depressing, as there’s a lot of great comedy throughout, which balances out the tone really well.

There’s a really good story that’s told throughout here, but I couldn’t help but feel that the “message” it was trying to send came off as massively heavy handed, kind of dragging it down. A big theme of the movie is that a lot of people still haven’t recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and boy, do they hammer it home. Old near-ghost towns with no places to work, waitresses saying they can barely make rent, an Old Texas cowboy literally shouting, “It’s nice to see the banks getting robbed, they’ve been robbin’ me for thirty years!” It’s to the point to where it’s almost comical. I understand why they did it, as it adds a bit of poignancy to the story and a lot people can relate, but a little bit of subtlety would have been nice. The story and characters are good enough as they are, that the film didn’t really need this kind of commentary.

All in all, Hell or High Water is a fantastic tale about desperate and determined people, doing what they feel is the right thing to do, even if it’s risky and may not all work out in the end. I was immediately drawn in by the intensity of this film and when it slows down, I was still drawn in by the great characters played by some extraordinary actors. While the themes of economic uncertainty were way too on the nose for my taste and I could have used a bit more development in the beginning, this is still one of the best films I’ve seen all year. While the western is never truly going to ever make a “comeback”, this is a true 21st century western in every sense of the word.

9/10

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