Drawing on elements of crime thrillers and Westerns, Hell or High Water is a compelling and entertaining character study. Set in contemporary West Texas, the film follows the criminal exploits of two brothers and the Rangers tasked with finding them.
The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard. The Howards engage in a series of robberies at different branches of a local bank. As each robbery becomes more frenetic than their methodical beginning, the differences between the brothers are revealed. Tanner is something of a career criminal, spending his life in and out of prison. His risk taking and occasional recklessness contrast with his brother who is solely concerned with getting the money to save their mother’s ranch before the bank forecloses. The pair initially plan only to hold up empty banks at opening before leaving in stolen cars to launder the money at an Oklahoma casino. There is a cleverness and purpose to their actions that makes it clear these brothers have greater concerns than just stealing money.
When authorities recognize the connection between bank robberies, Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are called upon to investigate and apprehend the robbers. The world-weary Hamilton is near retirement and his self-surety and deadpan insults to his partner give the character an endearing quality. The film evolves into a cat and mouse chase as the Rangers recognize the pattern and close in on the brothers. Much of the humor comes from the interactions of Hamilton and Parker, as well as the cast of locals they meet along the way.
Writer Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, has received multiple award nominations for his script. The story uses several understated interactions to demonstrate the differences between characters and reveal more about their lives. The balance of moving between the brothers and the Rangers lets the film eschew the tendency to turn into a standard crime thriller of escalating, meaningless violence and clever thievery. Grounded in place through its setting, the residents of these towns and the scenery bring depth to the story that could not take place anywhere else. Director David Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens take advantage of the natural landscape and largely rustic locations to bring the story to life through imagery.
Bridges gives his best performance in years and has appropriately been recognized with best supporting actor nominations from the major film awards. Chris Pine is excellent and his character shows the most range in the film, creating a sympathetic bank robber for audiences to attach to. Foster and Birmingham are well cast and perform their roles more than adequately. Katy Mixon makes a memorable appearance as a diner waitress who encounters both pairs of leads at different times.
Hell or High Water is one of the year’s best films. Well acted and directed, it brings substance and humanity to a genre too often preoccupied with the thrill of its violence. With tension throughout, this is a well-paced and thought provoking thriller. Pine, Foster, and Bridges are fantastic and are complemented by excellent production values.Our Rating: Observe