You know, I went into this film forgetting that it had been a major awards contender, I thought it was one which may have fell under the radar for critics. But “Hell or High Water” was certainly more than that, with a gripping story and star-studded cast.
Set in West Texas in a location which you would not want to get lost in at all, two brothers are on a bank robbery spree in order to get money together for a personal goal of some sort. (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) It doesn’t take them long to grab the attention of the Texas Rangers, since the FBI aren’t interested in taking on this small crime. (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham)The story follows the brothers and their struggles to make amends of the past, and the Rangers seeking to win this one big case, and all the time their paths encircling to the centre where they’ll clash.
There’s something about this tale that has a sense of the Coen Brothers to it, but instead it is directed by David Mackenzie, who was probably drawing inspiration from their catalogue of work. A gritty Cops and Robbers story set in the backdrop of rural Texas, with signs of the recession and struggles against corporations everywhere. It is a land where the old cowboy style sill thrives, but the romance of that living has long been lost to the wind.
The two brothers have an interesting setup – one recently being released from prison only to find his brother has been caring for their mother up until her death. Their farm has delved into ruin, and all hinges on one desperate plan to make things right. They clearly still have a very strong bond – one they need in order to get anything to work, but are almost polar opposites in personalities. Chris Pine and Ben Foster perform very well, but probably with Pine shining out the most. Their relationship is erratic and almost chaotic at times, but always returning to moments of calm and supporting one another. There’s nothing particularly special to them, they’re not robbery experts by any standard, but the plan is what keeps them moving fr=forward.
The two Rangers then are almost a plot that runs in parallel to the primary, and Jeff Bridges is wonderful. A old-timer cowboy type nearing retirement who is desperate to have one case to go out on in a blaze of glory. He is certainly getting on in years (and it shows), but with the excellent writing for him to go on, he is just riveting to watch. Gil Birmingham as the half-Native Indian counterpart, is much quieter and less enthusiastic about the case. But he provides a perfect balance to Bridges’s character that across the progression of the storyline, does get to shine.
Everything plays out in a drama style, following these two groups and their interactions in a way that illustrates that this was a film written for these actors to work well with. The moments of action that take place are the robberies and escapes, as well as the finale where it takes a sudden spike in intensity. But all the way through, it is the settings and the landscape that kept catching my attention. Nothing is pristine, and everywhere are the signs of rural demise and stagnation. And yet those beautiful backgrounds encapsulate the locations in a strangely beautiful manner. All of the camera work and editing is exceptional, lots of lovely centred shots and lighting alterations that aren’t utterly for the sake of art, but elevate the movie for me personally.
I will say that it isn’t a particularly tense or exciting film, you’d be best not to go in hoping for that. And the decision one of the brothers makes before the final showdown was rushed in my mind. Thankfully the very last scene is far more in-keeping with the overall tone I think the director was going for, and felt like an excellent place for it to conclude at.
“Hell or High Water” was going up against some very strong competition during the awards season this year, and with other releases being more bold and creative, you can kind of see why this just missed out. It is not to say it isn’t a good film – no, it’s a bloody excellent film, but is a narrative construct that although really well put together, is one we have seen many times before. The cast and artistic vision are what push it above the norm, and if you like the Deep South thriller and Noir genre, this will be one you’ll really dig.
Thanks for reading!