Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water is a terrific film. It tells a story with genuine stakes and authentic characters at its centre. It’s formally impressive, with car chases and a shootout that shine for their clarity and tension, but it’s not a showy film. It starts intriguingly with a quietly stunning long take of a bank robbery in a sleepy Texan podunk, and only improves from there. This is the type of film cinephiles mean when they talk about real movies made for adults. It’s a good story told well, with thematic weight behind its entertaining cinematics.

Hell or High Water follows Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), two brothers robbing branches of Texas Midlands Bank in downtrodden Texan towns. Tanner is the older of the two and a career ex-con. He knows how to rob and shoot, and how to hoot-and-holler while doing so. Toby is the younger son who took care of their disabled mother until her recent death. He’s divorced and hopes to make a better life for his boys, although he’s absent from their day-to-day. A crusty Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), tracks the boys along with his half Mexican, half Comanche partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), hoping to stop them before bloodshed ensues.

This being a crime thriller, bloodshed is inevitable. But you wish it weren’t. It’s a testament to the richness of the characterizations that you want all the characters to succeed, even if they’re working at cross-purposes. Writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) affords every character dignity and authentic motivation. It’s telling in the way he treats minor characters, who show up for one scene but make a big impact. A gentle conversation between a waitress (Katy Mixon) and Toby speaks volumes about the world these people live in—one where people grasp at the hope that a kindly stranger can offer a way out. Another scene with a waitress (Margaret Bowman) also displays Sheridan’s gift for wordplay, as she colourfully harangues Marcus and Alberto about only offering T-bone steak despite the menu’s declarations to the contrary.

I’d have been pleased enough if the film only consisted of conversations, as the language is so direct and colourful as to be a tonic for the ears. But when the shooting does occur, it’s effectively orchestrated. Most exciting is a holdup in a crowded bank. Director David Mackenzie makes sure we understand that most everyone is holding and that conceal-and-carry means any public scenario is a powderkeg. I loved the detail of the townsfolk forming a posse and following Toby and Tanner out of town, hoping to conclude their shootout. It speaks to their desperation—a violent shootout against bank robbers is the only opportunity for heroism in their lives.

Hell or High Water understands the people and places it depicts. It’s authentic and intelligent, while still providing rollicking entertainment. I wish there were more films like it.

9 out of 10

Hell or High Water (2016, USA)

Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Taylor Sheridan; starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin.