Hell or High Water

The Western is not dead.
Hell or High Water follows brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) on a bank robbing spree throughout rural Texas.  Toby is trying to secure a future for his family with the help of his criminal older brother.  They are pursued by the retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is the only one who sees the plan behind their mayhem.
Though it is set in present day Texas, Hell or High Water is definitely a Western.  And while some may dismiss it as a simple throwback to a long dead genre, they would be seriously mistaken.  Not only is the film a great Western, it is one of the best films of 2016.
Writer Taylor Sheridan (Best known for writing Sicario) brilliantly use the Western genre’s tropes to tell a contemporary story.  We get cowboys driving cattle across highways, lawmen wearing white hats atop “white horses” (Bridges’ character drives a white truck), and armed men threatening violence at every turn…it’s all here.  There is purpose behind this:  It is a forgotten place.
Hamilton’s partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), muses about the current state of this area.  A Native American, Parker points out that everyone was an “Indian” at one point.  And then someone came along and took their homes.  The banks are doing the same here.  And no one cares because these people are forgotten.  The Occupy Movement is over (Or at least the media seems to think so) and now the banks can do what they want.
This is more than robbing banks…its about the evil men do in the name of greed.
And David Mackenzie’s direction compliments the story perfectly.  He films the vast, wide open plains beautifully but uses them to show how desolate this area of Texas has become.  Towns are nearly empty with only the stubborn holdouts remaining.  These people are hanging on to a life their children have already moved on from.
Mackenzie lets the visuals do the talking for most of the film, with most scenes lasting over one, long take.  Dialogue never feels wasted and feels real.
Chris Pine gives one of his best performances as Toby.  It’s a very understated performance, as Toby is a man who is seemingly broken by life.  He begs Tanner to not kill anyone during the bank robberies.  But that facade hides a cunning and volatile man capable of extreme violence.  He’s not a sociopath, but simply a man who pushes right up to the limits to make sure his family is safe.
Ben Foster continues to prove that he is one of the best character actors going today with his work as the unstable Tanner.  A veteran bank robber, Tanner repeatedly tells Toby that he is doing a good thing.  The one redeeming quality the character has is his undying loyalty to his little brother.  But while he gets a lot of laughs with his antics, Tanner is the sociopath that Toby isn’t.  Nearly everyone Tanner meets ends up wanting to kill him…and he will gladly return the favor.
Jeff Bridges is great as the aging Marcus Hamilton, though he does seem to be channeling Rooster Cogburn from True Grit at times.  This doesn’t lessen his work though.  He is the lawman in the white hat to a tee, believing that all crimes must be punished.  While he admires the Howards for being more than “tweakers” on a crime spree, they are still lawbreakers who need to be stopped.  He is also very funny with his partner Alberto, with their friendship usually expressed by flurries of insults.
While I have only pointed out the good about Hell or High Water, I will give this warning:  It has a very deliberate pace.  There are bank robberies, but this is far from an action flick.  I’m not saying it’s boring…it’s just not for everyone.  Also my love of Westerns may be coloring my view.
But Hell or High Water is a film lover’s dream.  Perfectly paced, great acting and a compelling narrative make this one of my favorite films this year.
Score: 10 out of 10