“Hell or High Water” is a fantastic modern western. It is modern in that it takes place in the current era with cars and technology unlike most westerns I’ve seen which usually go back to the Civil War Era and the surrounding time periods…and it works. This is a personal film that gives room for the characters to breathe so their motivations can be fully explored and how complicated each of them are.
The film was directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan with the producers being Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn, Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane.
The story involves the brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Howard) robbing banks in small town Texas while being hunted by Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birningham) as each of their motivations for being in this hunt or robberies is revealed over the course of the film.
The Pros: The World – The world is a bunch of small dying towns in Texas. These are all towns that were bigger when the west was first settled but have died to time as so many dead industries litter the landscapes. It is a location of extreme poverty and desperation where everyone is armed…I enjoyed my time in this world because of how relevant and real it is to poverty here in the U.S. today.
The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures the rugged stretches of land that make up Texas as well as how isolated all our characters are making what connections they have with each other all the more meaningful. Giles Nuttgens did a fantastic job.
The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very much a western and keeps up the dark tone of the film as at the core it is a crime and heist film mixed with a western, as we spend as much time with the Howards and their robberies as we do with the Rangers Marcus and Alberto who are hunting them. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis did a great job capturing the feel of Texas and the tension that pervades the film.
Tanner Howard – Tanner is the brother who got out of prison and had experience robbing before. He also killed his and Toby’s abusive father and from there realized he had nothing to lose. Everything he does is for his brother and his brother’s family and for the thrill of the action. He’s a fascinating character who is bad but not all bad. Ben Foster does a good job giving this guy an edge and empathy.
Alberto Parker – Alberto character is half native and half Mexican and it is through him we get the why to what the Howard’s are doing as he calls out the people their for taking his peoples’ lands and how the cycle has continued with the banks taking there. He is very by the books and even though Marcus inspires him he also critiques Marcus’s obsessions. He is shot by Tanner at the end…Gil Birningham plays him and he is easily my favorite character in this film. I wanted to know more of his story.
Ranger Marcus Hamilton – Jeff Bridges owns every role he plays and he does that once again here as a Ranger who is aging out of the force and sees capturing the thieves as his last great hurrah. He manages to avenge his partner after Tanner shoots and figures out that Toby is the one who set everything in motion and even goes to talk to him. He is filled with so much regret over the loss of Alberto and implies he may be killed or kill Toby later. Like Toby he has no peace after the events, even with retirement and being sung as hero for taking out Tanner.
Toby Howard – Toby lives for his ex-wife and kids and everything he does is to get the money and the rights to the property his mother owned that has oil on it. He succeeds but we see, especially near the end how he regrets letting his brother reek havoc as he now has the blood of innocent people on his hands. This regret is one reason we see him wising for death at the end and that he is only living for his kids, the ones who he went into crime for in the first place to get them out of poverty.
Poverty and Dying Towns – Poverty is rampant throughout the landscape in this film and we get the glimpse of so many people who only have their pride, which can motivate them to different things like the Howard’s crime spree or Hamilton’s obsession. The opportunities are becoming less and their is sadness to everything that even though Toby pulled his family out of it, they screwed over so many others and others will never be able to get out.
Land and Ownership – The theme of land and ownership is huge and starts with Alberto’s speech on how this land all used to belong to his people until like the thieves the settlers and government stole it through war and now the banks are doing the same in this dying region. It is powerful as we see how land ownership is tied to power and power through violence.
The Cons: Too Slow At Times – About halfway through it hit’s a slow part where it takes a while to pick up again before the final big heist where everything goes down. The rest of the film makes up for it, it wouldn’t be in competition for the Top 5 Films of 2016 if that wasn’t the case, but it is still a problem. A bit more action in character relationships or heists would have strengthened the film.
This was a great film and might end up being one of the Top 5 of the year. It manages to say so much just by showing the state of so many poor Texas towns and from there you see the desperation that lead to the Howard’s taking their path of robbery to get out of it. It is really well done and I loved the levels of history, especially as expressed by Alberto and how the settlers had stolen his peoples’ land and now the banks were stealing theirs. This was a smart film that says a lot and doesn’t have a happy ending. It is a bittersweet western that deserves to be up there with the Westerns that are the greats.
Final Score: 9.7 / 10