This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
A divorced father and his ex-con brother go on a small-time bank-robbing spree to save their late mother's house from being foreclosed by the bank but even as their own fractious relationship threatens to corrode their entire enterprise, a pair of Texas Rangers come ever closer to catching up with them.
What we thought
Essentially a modern reinvention of the western, Hell or High Water uses its simple, bare-bones plot to explore a post-recession America, where greedy banks and everyday people feed off each other and the line between victim and criminal grows ever blurrier. Far more than just a polemical screed against banks, though, it's mostly an intimate character study of its four central characters, punctuated by a simmering tension broiling beneath the surface whose ultimate eruption into brutal violence is as inevitable as the two pairs of men on either sides of the law ultimately being drawn together for a final showdown. It's also dryly funny, quietly moving and, quite simply, one of the very best films of the year.
Working off a lean, witty script by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, director David Makenzie has taken his experience of working on small, interesting and largely ignored indie movies and poured it into a film so confident and so self-assured that it's all but impossible to imagine it not breaking him into the mainstream - even as it makes absolutely no concessions to that very Hollywood machine.
Hell or High Water is a complex, adult film that takes its time to tell its story without ever dragging its feet, instead pacing itself perfectly as it allows us to come to fully understand and sympathise with its characters and this strange, cruel and all too real world they inhabit. These are no cardboard cut outs but fully realised, lived-in characters and, though the film is smart and original enough not to suggest that, by definition, bankrobbers and lawmen are two sides of the same coin, the morality of these characters is inordinately complicated.
Take our good guys, for a start. While there's little moral greyness in the actions or thoughts of Gil Birmingham's stoic but thoroughly good Alberto Parker, his partner, Marcus Hamilton (played wonderfully by Jeff Bridges in finest form) mixes a sense of justice and, for all intents and purposes, a strong sense of decency with a casual racism aimed at Alberto's native American heritage that constantly treads the line between playful ribbing and cruelty. As retirement beckons, Marcus is also forced to come to terms with what on earth he's going to do in the future but also just what a life in law enforcement actually meant about him as a person.
On the other side of the coin, things are perhaps even more complicated. Ben Foster has never been better, but his Tanner Howard is, pretty much, the worst. His love for his brother is a major, redeeming factor but everything else about him just paints him as being as bad as Alberto Parker is good. That we sympathize with the guy at all is testament to both Foster's beautifully measured performance and smart, nuanced writing. His brother, Toby (as played by Chris Pine, also never better but also quite different from his usual roles), on the other hand is a mess of conflicted emotions, intentions and actions. Here's someone doing bad things for all the right reasons: a victim and potential perpetrator of greed and a deeply flawed but loving father who risks everything to provide for his kids but, in doing so, may well leave them fatherless. Bridges may be the film's biggest and best attraction but Pine and his character are really the film's MVP(s).
The film spends most of its time exploring these characters and their relationships but as something that's a mix of a post-modern western and a classic crime thriller, there is inevitably some “action” to be had – though if you're looking for fun, boisterous and ultimately meaningless gunfights, you'd be better off sticking with the Magnificent Seven remake. The bank robberies that pepper the first two acts of the film are brutal and ugly, even as they are largely lacking in any actual violence, while the inevitable showdown at the end presents violence as something shocking, sudden and hideously vile. The white collar crime that created this world is demonstrably, perniciously evil but the film's attitude towards violence makes it appear even worse. Hell or High Water is a western that clearly recoils at some of the underlying ideas and (a)morality of its own genre.
For all of its moralizing, thematic richness and serious character work, though, Hell or High Water is neither overly harrowing nor overly intellectual. Its smart, its thoughtful and its very sporadically brutal but it's also a pleasure to watch: a beautifully crafted slice of cinema that never loses sight of just how important humour is in winning over the sympathy of its audience. Clearly, those looking for pure, unbridled, joyous entertainment (and there's nothing wrong with that) would do well to rather watch Marvel's latest winner, Dr Strange, but if you're looking for something deeper, meatier and more mature but still fundamentally enjoyable then Hell or High Water cannot be recommended highly enough. Cinema just doesn't get much better than this.