Hell or High Water

Hell or Highwater blasts its way onto movie screens, seemingly from out of nowhere, and scores the distinction of best cops-and-robbers picture since Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), and the best neo-western since… well, maybe ever.  This supremely confident indie stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family’s West Texas farm.  Hot on their trail is a weathered Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Comanche half-Mexican partner (Gil Birmingham). For the two brothers, the poorly-planned heists are a last-ditch effort to redeem their own bad choices and reclaim a sense of identity that’s been stolen by corporate America. For the senior Ranger, their capture represents a last hurrah before he rides off into the sunset of retirement. To the younger ranger, the entire enterprise seems both futile and inevitable. All these characters consciously or unconsciously understand that the world they thought they lived in has passed them by and passed them over.

The original screenplay by American actor/writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) crackles with a surface layer of humor and bravado that provides a perfect counterpoint to the nuanced insight contained within the premise and plot.  Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense, Starred Up) embraces and transforms all the expected stylistic conventions of the heist genre to create a fresh, dark, unforeseen cinematic thrill ride. Pine (Captain Kirk of the new Star Trek) and Foster (3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger, Alpha Dog) each deliver their most mature performances to date—I had no idea Pine was such a solid actor. And Bridges discovers even more layers to play here with a potentially stock character than he found in either his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart or his turn as “Rooster" Cogburn in the Coen Brother’s True Grit.  Together, this team weaves an exceptional tapestry from what seems like old threads and worn-out patterns. Familiar scenarios take on auxiliary subtexts, old jokes cut with unexpectedly sharp-edges, and relational dynamics we’ve seen in countless stories about outlaws and lawmen feel fresh, honest, and of the moment.  

Hell or High Water is both a crime thriller and a western. It takes place in the new Wild West of contemporary small-town, open-carry Texas. This is the first movie I’ve seen to effectively paint a picture of the America envisioned by the NRA, but it also elucidates the folly of that self-protectionist ideal. Much of what we hear and see on screen is disturbing, but most unsettling is the outright pleasure we take in experiencing it all. Sheridan and Mackenzie somehow manage to champion and revel in old-school ideas about masculinity, race, frontier justice, and rugged American individualism while simultaneously illustrating how anemic and immaterial these conceptions have become.

Sharp, subtle twists and comedic surprises keep us enthralled and concerned. The exquisitely crafted dialogue flows from the actors’ mouths with the ease of an exhale.  A few individual set-pieces are so strong they’re worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest scenes— for example, a diner sequence that’s almost as memorable as the one in Five Easy Pieces—yet these moments never distract from the overall narrative. Everything flows with an editorial rhythm and pacing that makes this a film viewers will want to revisit early and often (something I find less and less true of the good movies of the past decade). All of this builds to a searing climax and final scene as well-written and brilliantly executed as any in the entire history of westerns and crime films.

It’s been ages since a thriller came along with such a dynamic combination of rollicking entertainment and astute social commentary. Hell or High Water easily surpasses pictures like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and approaches the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and Unforgiven in terms of illustrating how genre films can deliver the most powerful and convincing statements on thorny moral issues. 

Directed by David Mackenzie
Produced by Sidney Kimmel, Julie Yorn, Peter Berg, and Carla Hacken

Written by Taylor Sheridan

With: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Melanie Papalia, Debrianna Mansini, and Taylor Sheridan

Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens
Editing: Jake Roberts
Music: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Runtime: 102 min
Release Date: 12 August 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1