Few films can balance classic thrills with socially aware commentary and be just as satisfying in both elements. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan’s modern Western Hell or High Water doesn’t just excel at both aspects, it also contains numerous stellar performances and a caliber of craftsmanship that makes it easily one of the best films of 2016.
Concerned with two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who go on a bank robbery spree out of financial desperation, Hell or High Water blazes through a thoroughly authentic-feeling Texas setting and has more to say about the 2008 financial crisis in its aesthetics than most newspapers could say with a gallon of ink. Focused on its unrelentingly tense plot and dynamic characters, Mackenzie’s film uses its tone and powerful themes to turn West Texas into a living and breathing character whose haunted appearance infuses every frame with deeper meaning. It’s a setting that exists on the outskirts and in dying towns that have been ravaged by financial crises and opportunistic banks, and whose residents have been largely forsaken in their poverty. Those real world financial hardships infuse the film with a real world weight that works with fully fleshed out and enthralling characters for a story that takes the seemingly clichéd premise of criminals on the run chased by a soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger and makes something fresh, utterly thrilling, and haunting.
As brothers, Pine and Foster play slightly off-center representations of characters that they have come to be known for in numerous roles before. Pine’s Toby is a driven man whose need to save his family land and provide for his sons forces him to take extreme measures. And while he may be out of his depth in undertaking such a violent and immoral course of action out of some greater sense of duty, his intelligence and focus mean that he comes across as a relatable and even darkly inspiring figure. As Tanner, Foster once again plays an unhinged criminal, albeit one who is far more grounded than many of the characters seen in the actor’s laundry list of wild men. Trigger happy and seemingly at odds with the world as a whole, Foster’s co-lead role is a wild card who provides a great deal of the film’s dramatic tension. These two have some spectacular chemistry together, which is an absolute must for a film this narrowly focused and largely driven by its character rather than its plot.
Opposite them is Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, a soon-to-be-retired stubborn bastard of a lawman whose focus on bringing down the two brothers is just as much about justice as it is about staving off his impending retirement. Sporting his now seemingly-ubiquitous marble mouthed drawl and mustache, Bridges is in classic old law dog mode. Yet Mackenzie makes sure that the character’s depth and weaknesses are shown just as much as his fiery attitude. For all his bluster and fury, Bridges reveals the character’s fragility, which mixes with the frequently racist trash talk he hurls at his long suffering partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) for a performance that takes been-there-done-that character archetypes and makes them bracingly human.
There’s no doubt that the aesthetics and layered meanings of The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men inform Hell or High Water to some degree, but Mackenzie’s neo-Western is far more concerned about palpable questions of poverty and morality than the Coens’ far more existential leanings in their film. There’s a push and pull to this movie, a swagger that knows when to start showing off, and a quiet tenderness that makes for an unpredictable yet wholly satisfying blend of heart and grit. Mackenzie and Sheriden’s script know exactly when to step on the gas for unrelentingly tense thrills as well as when to ease back and let the characters take center stage. That combination means that there’s never a moment when you wish that you were watching a different character or in a different type of scene, making each moment count and enriching the many that follow. Make no mistake, Hell or High Water has plenty of attitude when it wants to, but its many strengths lie in a wounded and relatable humanity at its core. Combine those elements with a stellar sparse musical score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with a truly spectacular selection of outlaw country tunes, and the tone of Hell or High Water remains pitch perfect from start to finish.
As the brothers’ crime spree turns violent and increasingly harder to control, audience sympathies begin to shift between them and Hamilton. That’s thanks to the humanization of all three characters, which makes their inevitable confrontations far more morally grey and dependent upon the viewer’s judgments rather than a definitive moral stance taken by the film.
From beginning to end, Hell or High Water refuses to give simple answers and pushes the audience to engage with it. From dropping viewers into its narrative in media res to its less-then-tidy ending, the film’s lack of definitive conclusions mean that it will stay with viewers far longer than if its narrative was neatly packaged and filed away by the time the credits rolled. And the same goes for the way the film doles out backstory and explanations for its characters actions. Lingering shots and minimal, very real-sounding dialogue reveals tremendous amounts of information about both the past and inner life of the film’s characters. Don’t expect a helpful clichéd info drop spouted by a character to spell out character traits, plot structure, and genre. Thankfully, those types of annoyingly obvious and all-too-often-used plot contrivances are left out of Hell or High Water in favor of a far more naturalistic way of conveying character, theme, and plot.
Blending well with the film’s more naturalistic means of exposition and character interactions are its use of very authentic-feeling backdrops to action and colorful side characters. Dusty plains as far as the eye can see, broken down towns, and bystanders with guns handy who just so happen to complicate most every robbery all add to the West Texas feel of Hell or High Water, as well as its commentary on poverty’s grip in America’s heartland. Really, the villains of Mackenzie’s film are the banks and the poverty that they cause, not any of the men who are found on opposing sides of the law. But federally-protected banks and the creeping disease of poverty cannot be defeated by the protagonists of Hell or High Water, they can simply circumvent their destruction by any means necessary.
What it takes to overcome such odds will stick with the characters left in the film’s aftermath and any viewer who finds him- or herself relating to the taste of financial desperation in this lingering examination of violence in a time of uncaring economic disaster.