Hell or High Water Review

Posted: October 5, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

hell-or-high-water-posterWritten by Daniel Simpson

Last year, a movie called Sicario came out that tons of people loved. The film didn’t exactly light up the box-office and I expect most general audiences still aren’t familiar with it, but the film was something of a sensation in the film community, receiving rave reviews and showing up on a lot of year end top ten lists. Personally I wasn’t so fond of the film. I admired director Denis Villeneuve’s craft, but found the script to be cliché and half-baked. Now, that same screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, has penned a new crime movie called Hell or High Water which has once again been enthusiastically greeted by the film community. Overall, I would say I like this film more than Sicario, but once again I find myself respecting the craft of the director more than Sheridan’s screenplay.

The film is set in modern West Texas, a part of America which has been beaten down by a rough economy. The focus is on a pair of brothers trying to raise money who turn to robbing banks. Eldest brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is a wild card with an impulsive streak and a criminal record, while the seemingly clean younger brother Toby (Chris Pine) serves as the brains of the operation. The pair have an organized system for robbing banks, but are by no means experts. The soon find themselves hunted by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger nearing retirement and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, a director I’ve thus far been unfamiliar with but who has received some solid praise over the last few years. I expect this film will serve as something of a breakthrough as it definitely shows a promising talent. Mackenzie does a great job capturing setting. There are a lot of wide shots of West Texas which emphasize the rural nature of the area and attention is also paid to the declining economy through the rundown buildings and ads for “cash for credit” type stores. This sets a great mood, and it also plays into the film’s larger themes of the decline of the West and the increasing exploitation of groups of people. Mackenzie also does a great job crafting some effective scenes. The bank robbery set-pieces are well-constructed in a minimalist way and the finale where things go off the rails is very tense and exciting. Mackenzie also gets some really strong performances from his actors. Ben Foster and Chris Pine both sink into their roles really well and they also have a great sense of camaraderie. I especially liked watching Pine, who brings a certain thoughtfulness to the role. However the stand-out of the film is most definitely Jeff Bridges as the aging Sheriff. I wouldn’t call this Bridges’ best work, but he creates a strong character who faces his situation with equal parts humour and humility.

So in short, this is a very well-made movie with some really solid acting and a handful of really good scenes. However, it falls short of greatness. What it comes down to is that the film is very preachy in terms of its basic themes. There are scenes where the characters make long-winded speeches telling us what the film is about, or will say one simple line and stare dramatically, and these points are hammered in quite a lot throughout the film. I don’t mind a lot of explanation when a film is dealing with a really complex or profound ideas, but that isn’t the case with Hell or High Water. The film’s themes basically boil down to the decay of the West, the lengths one will go for family (even perpetrating crime), the evil of big banks, the dangers of gun violence, and the continual exploitation of groups of people. None of these ideas are particularly complicated or novel, in fact many of which are standard tropes in crime films like this. They really don’t need such extensive explanation, particularly given how well the aforementioned visuals speak to a lot of the core ideas at the heart of the film.

The film is also probably destined to inevitably live in the shadow of No Country for Old Men. Both films are sort of neo-Westerns about the changing of the times emphasized through a near retirement Texan sheriff. There are differences of course. Hell or High Water is more focused on economics than the generally more lofty No Country for Old Men, and Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton is certainly a different character from Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, but the similarities do remain. Obviously, Hell or High Water doesn’t match that Coen Brothers masterpiece, but I probably shouldn’t get too caught up in the film’s shortcomings. At the end of the day, Hell or High Water is a very good movie that is well worth your time. This is a fine example of craftsmanship and it’s also a good fusion of genre and adult entertainment.


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