REVIEW: ‘Hell or High Water’ a riveting, poignant crime drama

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Hell or High Water delivers in every meaningful way as a crime drama. Intense and riveting, it’s a story of modern-day outlaws and lawmen that achieves the gravity and grit of the classic cinematic western.

It’s also among actor Chris Pine’s most memorable performances, as well as yet another unforgettable character outing for Jeff Bridges. Audiences should not have any trouble putting aside Captain Kirk or ‘The Dude’ while watching this one, regardless of their affection for those iconic characters.

What’s it about?

Set against a bleak West Texas landscape full of dust and dying towns, Hell or High Water is, above all, a story of two pairs of brothers on either side of the law.

The first brothers audiences meet are the Howard brothers, Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). The elder brother, Tanner, is an ex-con who’s spent the previous decade in jail. In his absence, Toby, a divorced father of two sons, looked after their terminally-ill mother.

Now, with their mother gone and a bank looking to foreclose on the family home, the two launch a desperate plan to save what they have left, a plan involving robbing banks.

The brothers’ dispositions couldn’t possibly differ more: Toby is measured and cautious, while Tanner is quick-tempered and brash. But they’re both devoted to preserving a future for their family.

Their well-planned exploits soon come to the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges). Days from forced retirement, the cagey old ranger sees something more to the crimes than just petty thefts.

Along with his reluctant partner (Gil Birmingham, the Twilight series), the two lawmen begin tracking the bank robbers, Hamilton believing he can anticipate their next move.

As the Howards close in on their goal, the Rangers patiently wait for their quarry to make a mistake. It’s an old-fashioned cat-and-mouse game from which none of them will escape unscathed.

Hell or High Water one sheet

Modern Texas, same old wild west

The cinematic power of Hell or High Water starts with its backdrop.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) sets his story amidst a Texas made desperate by poverty and economic recession. Life and property are as at risk here as they’ve ever been, but not from bandits and prairie wars. Government and banks are cast as the victimizers in this Western story. They are remote, faceless villains whose power and reach set the tragic events of the film into motion.

Within that context, Hell or High Water delivers a character study of people determined not just to survive, but also to protect what they cherish most. They’re all, in their own ways, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, in a game where the house almost always wins.

That’s not to say it’s all dusty doom and gloom in the film. In fact, the script packs a remarkable amount of humor borne of the characters’ personalities and circumstances. Bridges gets the lion’s share of the zingers as the irascible old coot, but everyone in the ensemble gets opportunities to lighten things up.

Bridges, Pine, Foster all strong

While the entire ensemble in Hell or High Water is superb, it’s the film’s leads that truly stand out.

Pine and Foster make for convincing brothers and a sympathetic pairing through the film. Audiences less than thrilled with the genre films both actors have appeared in this past year (Pine in Star Trek Beyond, Foster in Warcraft), should consider their efforts here far more indicative of their talent and range.

Pine, in particular, continues to show considerable range with his success in a variety of projects. Earlier this year, he delivered solid work in the serviceable The Finest Hours, and just over a year ago he was holding his own singing in Into the Woods.

With Hell or High Water, Pine shows serious acting chops in a lean, minimalist performance. It’s work that should put him in line for more character-driven work to define his career away from Star Trek.

As for Bridges, it seems he’s truly in his element in roles like these. His character is the sort of pain you love to watch on screen, but might hate having to deal with in real life. His shared scenes with Birmingham, again, are among the film’s most humorous and memorable, especially considering how they set up drama that unfolds later in the film.

Worth seeing?

Safe to say, Hell or High Water is easily one of 2016’s best thus far. Yes, its pace, tone, and style mimic that of the classic western. However, its powerful story and compelling performances help the film transcend genre boundaries.

For fans of the cast, the film is an absolute must. But even film fans without a horse in this particular race will no doubt find lots to enjoy here.

Hell or High Water

Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. Directed by David Mackenzie.
Running Time: 102 minutes
Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.

Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.