Hell or High Water should feel like a million other movies – and yet, it (mostly) doesn’t. There are so many cliches, so many characters and moments, taken from dozens of other Westerns or heist films, and yet Hell or High Water is a refreshing medley of those elements. Coming from Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, it’s no surprise to see a fresh take on a well-worn genre, a gritty, pitch perfect depiction of modern rural Texas, where cafes sell steak, everyone packs heat, and there’s a real sense of the economic troubles that everyone faces.
Hell or High Water tells the tale of two brothers, bank robbers, who are on a mission of family; both are clichés. The younger of the two, Toby (Chris Pine at his most world-weary) is soft-spoken and intelligent, a clever planner, the “brains” of the operation. The elder, Tanner (Ben Foster, electric with energy) is a career criminal, an ex-con with a real knack for guerrilla warfare, and a wild card with major impulse control issues. If they weren’t brothers, it’s hard to imagine the two would get along.
The two are united in a spree of bank robbery which gets the attention of Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges at his most well-weathered), the soon-to-retire elder stateman, and his younger partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, wry and understated), who is constantly ridiculed for his ethnicity and provides a philosophical foil. There’s a rehearsed nature to their relationship, a sense that they’ve been partners for an age.
The two pairs of actors are in some ways mirrors of each-other, two intelligent and soft-spoken leads and their two comedic foils; more importantly, they’re just mesmerizing to watch.
The dialogue in Hell or High Water is spartan, with characters who tend to say what they mean and not much else, but also filled with moments of color, particularly when the four main characters interact with outsiders – (pay attention to the waitresses at the diners that the characters visit). The film is a lesson in efficient storytelling; screenwriter Taylor Sheridan gets a lot of mileage out of small details, both in terms of establishing the universe of the film (gun-shot holes dotting highway road signs), as well as telling the story of these four men.
Although Hell or High Water features moments of action dotted throughout, it’s not an “action” movie, carefully paced throughout with long stretches of driving and contemplation. It’s close cousins with a film like No Country for Old Men, though it has a softer, less apocalyptic vision than that. There’s also a real political consciousness to Hell or High Water that will resonate with many audiences. In 2017, conservatives rail on liberals and the Hollywood elite for not recognizing the plight of Americans in rural areas; Hell or High Water has to at least count for something as a refutation of that claim.
Overall, Hell or High Water isn’t going to be for everyone – nowadays, cowboy movies rarely are – but its award recognition (including four Academy Award nominations) is proof that there remains a place in the cinema landscape for an action movie for the philosophical crowd.