If you’re looking for something to get you through the end of summer, and also bridge the drought between now and Awards Season Movie Hype, look no further than Hell or High Water, or as I fondly call it: the best drama I’ve seen this year. Maybe that’s not such a stretch, considering what’s come out in 2016 — it’s been a dismal bunch to be sure, and I’m hoping the last few months of the year will make up the difference. But, Hell or High Water comes into the fold with an excitement and style that sets it apart from just about every other thing out there.
It shouldn’t be so special if you really think about it. The plot isn’t a new one — two brothers against the world, robbing banks, and the detectives who seek to stop them. Yet, somehow it defies convention in enough places that it feels fresh, and addresses old tropes in an artistic way that elevates it beyond western crime pulp.
Directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Hell or High Water has a point of view, a very clear vision of the world it wants to address. It’s born out of the context of the housing crisis that brought the world’s economy to its knees. It’s far from a tongue in cheek look at the finance world like The Big Short was last year, instead a dramatization of the exploitative nature of poverty, and what people can be driven to do if they feel the system has been rigged against them.
The movie centers around Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s Howard Brothers, out for a little payback against the bank who has a lien on their family farm. There’s a lot to root for if you like underdog stories. But, before anyone worries about the brothers and their crimes being romanticized too much, Jeff Bridges and his partner, played by Gil Birmingham, bring a law and order balance to the narrative as Texas Rangers looking to stop the duo. The bad boy protagonists may have hearts of gold, but they’re willing to break the social contract to get there, noble cause be damned. It’s gripping to see the exchange between the two worlds — the hunters and the hunted.
Maybe that’s because the performances are so strong. Even some of the smaller parts feel well rounded and deep, a particular favorite of mine being Katy Mixon’s Jenny Ann, who plays a sweet waitress, stealing every scene she’s in. As for the leads, Ben Foster and Chris Pine have wonderful familial chemistry. This is possibly Pine’s best work to date, as some of his projects have been hit and miss for my taste. He proves he can do this kind of work if he wants more of it in between Star Trek (live long and prosper). Bridges disappears into his role, in a perfect comedic balance with Birmingham as they snip at each other across Texas doing their job. Side note, Gil Birmingham needs a TV show. Not just a bit role, the lead. I’d watch him in an episodic cop show, I’d watch him as the head doctor in a soap, I’d watch him raise a bunch of rascally teens on the CW. He’s got so much presence when he’s on screen, we’d be a better cultural landscape with more of him in our media.
Hell or High Water is also so Texas, y’all. That’s coming from a certified native from the great Republic of Texas herself. I could feel the heat practically radiating off the screen with how Texas it was. Good job on that front.
All in all, Hell or High Water was an excellent ride, one of the few films that came out this year that not only earn my recommendation, but makes me want to see it again in theaters. It’s good, classic filmmaking — good directing, good script, good acting, no frills needed. And, to top it all off, it’s got an amazing soundtrack to boot. It will more than satisfy that cinematic thirst so many of us feel at the moment.