Director: David Mackenzie
Run Time: 1h 42m
Don’t mess with Texas.
Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) have a short time to save their family farm. After their mom passed on, Toby enlisted the help of his criminal big brother to raise the money that they need. His plan is a good one. A great one in fact. However time isn’t their only obstacle. Soon-to-be-retired Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are gaining ground in the investigation to catch the West Texas bank robbers before they strike again. The thing about having a plan is…things rarely play out accordingly. But Toby is determined to see this through to the end, come Hell or High Water.
If you’ve read any of my previous reviews you know I am a huge fan of simplicity in film. I am a firm believer that the best stories don’t have to dive too deep to keep you interested. Usually, as is the case with HoHW, this gives the characters an opportunity to shine against the backdrop of their circumstances. All four of our main characters — Toby, Tanner, Marcus, and Alberto — have motives and desires that drive them further as the minutes tick by. There’s the obvious — Toby is going to lose his farm, Marcus is afraid of retirement — but there’s so much more to be revealed. I loved that this film allowed you to learn just enough, bit by bit. Not too much up front so you’re bored with the sad song of the South by the time the credits role, but not too little so that you’re confused when the sh*t hits the fan by Act III. It all makes perfect sense.
I am also pro-smarts. If a movie can keep it simple while still being clever and a bit devilish, I’m one happy girl when I leave the theater. HoHW is smart. At first you learn that the Howard boys have thought the actual act of bank robbery through: which cash to take, things to avoid, even the time of day to best suit their needs. But there is an extra layer you don’t find out until closer to the end that makes it all that much sweeter. Of course I will not be revealing their secret, but it’s genius.
Obviously a sure-fire way to ensure your characters are complex enough to spark an emotional response from your audience is to have ridiculously talented actors in your movie. Enter: Pine, Foster, Bridges, and Birmingham. These men make the art of acting look oh-so easy. The flawed characters that they portray are made better by the dedication each one brought to their respective roles. The chemistry between Pine and Foster is effortless. The natural banter is there, and while their brotherly bond is strained — due to Tanner’s jail time and family estrangement — you can still feel that they love one another and their crimes only bring them closer. On the flip side, Bridges and Birmingham have a different rapport. Bridges is an elderly white man who is about to be forced out of his job because he’s too old. His partner is half-Indian half-Mexican who has a boss/partner who loves a good Indian joke. The banter is all in good fun and you can tell nothing is said in animosity. As you watch the dynamics of both relationships grow and change over the course of the film, you realize that love a man has for his partner in crime isn’t all that different from the love another man has for his partner in law.
Now, the only thing I love more than simplicity and intelligence is a good ending. Similar to how first impressions have a lasting impact on relationships, endings leave a lasting impression for movies. If you’re left with a sour taste, it’s hard to overlook when recalling the movie months later. But if you’re left with a “Wtf?! That was so perfect!” sort of mindset, well…you get the point. HoHW may be a crime drama on the surface, but at its heart lies a Western. I never said you’d find a happy ending, but you’ll find the one that was meant to be. The only one it could have been in my opinion. (Side note: If you need help understanding the importance of the ending, watch Stranger Than Fiction. They explain it better than I could.)
I’m not so naïve to think that just anyone could appreciate Hell or High Water. I would hope everyone would give it a chance; but it’s mostly for fans of the Western genre, the actors in the movie, or a good character study.
Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan. This is only his second screenplay. His first? Sicario.
You can read my Sicario review here.