There’s a sense that director David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) took a few pages out of the Coen brothers’ playbook when it came to crafting their modern-day western, “Hell or High Water.” Like “No Country for Old Men,” it’s set in West Texas, and has a great deal of humorous dialogue to ease its tense storytelling. Like “True Grit,” it has Jeff Bridges playing a man of the law that likes his alcohol – though he doesn’t quite indulge in it as much here.
But let’s put aside the feeling of familiarity for a minute here. Because while “Hell or High Water” does have some of that present, what’s dominant throughout is a sense of freshness. Mackenzie and Sheridan don’t just give us the same old cops and robbers story we’ve seen countless times. They give us one that is smart, edgy, insightful, and wickedly funny.
The film opens with a bank robbery – the first of many that brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) execute as a way to save the family farm. With their mother gone, and the mortgage being under control by the bank, the brothers figure the best way to get the money is to take it from those that have done their family and many others wrong: the banks.
Toby is calm and collected. If the two rob the bank, he draws his gun, but doesn’t seem like he wants to use it. Tanner, on the other hand, is like a stick of dynamite on the verge of exploding. He’s only a year out of prison, and the time he did spend apparently didn’t change his attitude. Not like he cares, either.
Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) is just days away from retirement when he and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are assigned the case. The two play like a sort-of “Odd Couple” in law enforcement. Marcus is at the point where he doesn’t care what happens; he knows his life is going to be just sitting out on the porch, watching the days go by. So he takes every moment he can to make fun of his partner, a half-Comanche and half-Mexican. The jokes mostly regard the fact that Alberto has Indian blood in him, and he informs his partner that he also has Mexican in him. To which Marcus replies that he’ll get on those when he runs out of Indian jokes.
“Hell or High Water” also serves as a brilliant commentary on the economic hardships faced by many. The small towns all have foreclosed businesses, dried up landscape, and waitresses that resent the position they’re in due to low tips and/or monotony. Rather than just put the sole focus on our four main characters (Pine, Foster, Bridges, and Birmingham), Mackenzie and Sheridan spend a great deal fleshing out certain side players as well. Some of them may only have a few lines of dialogue, but they’re all memorable.
Pine proves that he is more than just Captain Kirk in the rebooted “Star Trek” series. This is the best he’s been thus far in his young career. He’s a man who’s frightened for the future of his family. That includes not just his live-wire brother, but also his ex-wife and two sons. Toby wants the best for all of them, and Pine expresses that well in his subtle performance.
Foster is at the top of his game – giving what should be an Oscar-nominated performance. He’s vicious and unforgiving. It’s incredible to watch his performance unfold, not knowing exactly what he’s capable of.
Bridges is playing his part like Marcus is a relative of Rooster Cogburn, though more toned down. This is not a bad thing at all, actually, as Bridges is given many great, memorable lines throughout – most of which consist of politically incorrect insults being slung at Birmingham – and he never gives the sense that he’s there just to collect a paycheck. As his partner, Birmingham is a perfect match, and is always ready for whatever jab Marcus dishes.
“Hell or High Water” is rich in every frame. With each tracking shot or panoramic view, there is not a single moment where the camerawork feels off. It’s all beautifully captured by DP Giles Nuttgens.
To top it all off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an exceptional score to go along with “Hell or High Water.” It never feels like they’re going for an obvious western soundtrack or that they overdo it in certain scenes. It plays out naturally, and it’s a joy to hear so many great pieces.
When the credits rolled, I had the sudden urgency to watch “Hell or High Water” again. I wanted to get lost in the gorgeous landscape again. I wanted to pick up some lines that might have been drowned out from the audience’s laughter. I wanted to witness the great performances again. I wanted to revisit everything else this movie has to offer.
This truly is one of the best films to come out this year.