Hell or High Water (2016)

2016 ushered in some really great films and I mean really, really great films. I still haven’t had the chance to catch up on all of them (mainly Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight) but already Nocturnal animals, Hell or High Water, I, Daniel Blake and Arrival are up there on my favorite films list, especially in their respective genres. Hell or High Water in particular is my favorite film of 2016 so I thought it only fitting to review it after having just watched it again for the millionth time.

Hell or High Water follows the story of two brothers played by Chris Pine ( in a surprisingly grubby, nuanced performance) and Ben Foster (quickly becoming one of the best character actors around, watch out Tom Hardy) who are bank robbers, early on in the narrative they become pursed by a Sheriff and his deputy, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham respectively. It is also Directed by David Mackenzie (who put a young Jack O`Connell on the map) and is written by Taylor Sheridan.

I`m establishing this early on in this review as I think its essential that the key players of this film are introduced, because there is one specifically who I want to cover in this review first , the person who ties the whole project together, that person is Taylor Sheridan.

Taylor Sheridan started his career as an actor, he had bit parts on television shows but rarely got the work he deserved, this led him to turn to writing. Sheridan`s first writing credit is on the brilliant Sicario (my favorite film of 2015). Sicario is a film I have an unashamed love for and featured very elusive and political writing, along with a great story that teased out career best performances from Emily Blunt and veteran actor Benicio Del Toro. Hell or High Water is Sheridan`s sophomore follow up and he does not disappoint. When I rewatched this film specifically to take notes on it, three pages of those notes are composed entirely of quotes from the film. The writing here is crackling, similar to Sicario we have exceptional characters on the page and probably more impressively Sheridan possesses the ability to establish characters and mood in a single line of dialogue “You robbing the bank? Crazy, you ain`t even Mexican” these are not only darkly humorous but also strikingly accurate and political.

Another running theme that is captured through both the writing and cinematography is The death of the Old West, this is a very prominent theme that gives the film its decrepit and desperate atmosphere. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures the barren West beautifully, we see wide shots of oil pumps decimating the hostile and hot landscape, along with closer more compact shots that quickly establish the dilapidated towns which represent the real Texas.

With the cinematography finely executed, its Sheridan`s writing that really helps encapsulate this feeling that the old romanticised West is gone forever. First the american Indians had it, then the cowboys took it from them, and now its time for the banks to steal from everyone who is left. In a brilliant gambling scene, Fosters character is confronted by a native american. Foster compares himself to the man, as if to one up him, sadly this only emphasises the fact that Foster is now in the same boat as him, with the banks here to take away his way of life as a cowboy, just as they did to the Natives.

An example of the beautiful cinematography used throughout the film.

As mentioned previously the film is Directed by David Mackenzie, in an interview he stated that he wanted to play “Fast and loose” with his direction. That statement sounds like it could be taken negatively (the horrible direction in Taken 3 for example), especially for a film that contains a number of action sequences. However Mackenzie remains in complete control and has a fantastic eye for action, staging all his sequences so everything is tense but comprehensible. Mackenzie also knows when a film needs to end and the runtime on the film demonstrates this, the film has a perfect pace at 102 minutes. While quite often there are films come award season that have ridiculous running times (Heres looking at you The Wolf of Wall Street), here every scene is utilised to get the most out of it, there isn`t a single scene I could think of removing that wouldn’t take something away from the film.

Director David Mackenzie has been known to get great performances out of his actors and Hell or High Water is absolutely no different. One of the greatest assets this film has to offer is that absolutely every single actor is on startling top form, I`ll cover each of the key actors separately as I think they all deserve special attention.

First of all we have Chris Pine playing Toby Howard, objectively speaking Chris Pine is a very attractive man and generally his roles demand that of him. Here he has traded in his Captain Kirk charisma and wry charm for a father who seems to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders, but is also determined to make a better life for his family despite being segregated from it. Pine takes up the mantle of playing the “straight man” of the two brothers, normally this is a role reserved for a slightly less interesting actor, one who audiences can depend on for a standard uninteresting performance. However Pine through both brilliant writing and his own talent, manages to turn it into something else entirely. In one of the best scenes (and monologues) of the film he states “Being poor is like a disease, passed down from generation to generation, it becomes a sickness… But not for my boys” Pine delivers it with perfect clarity and realness, he really surprised me in this film and I really hope to see him take up more roles like this, Its a real shame he was overlooked during awards season.

Next we have Ben Foster, playing Tobys brother, Tanner, he is a loose cannon and has recently been released from jail. Foster is not a huge name in Hollywood so to speak and isn’t always handed leading man roles (however he gave a star making performance playing Lance Armstrong in The Program) generally he is in supporting roles, this might seem like Foster doesn’t have the presence to carry a film in a lead role, this is not the case. Foster can really elevate almost anything hes in, even if the material is poor, but mixed with this writing and Mackenzies direction he knocks his performance out of the park. Playing the more unhinged of our two brothers is a role that could be easily pigeon holed by audiences into “oh hes the crazy one” the one would likely cause constant trouble for his brother and is only taking part in the robbery for his own financial reward.. While Tanner has his moments, he does not conform to this stereotype and clearly loves and supports his brother, when the brothers discuss the severity of the situation they have undertaken, Toby questions why his little brother would even bother, Tanner simply replies “Because you asked little brother”, a simple line delivered with complete confidence and love.

Before I cover the other two supporting characters in the story I would like to mention that what I love so much about the acting between Pine and Foster is that this is a film where the two actors FEEL like brothers. You truly believe these are two men who have grown up together as kids and over the years have created a very real relationship with one another. Without writing down the entire script, there are many great moments between the two that really help us as audience members invest and care in the pairs relationship, which a lot of films would have real trouble portraying onscreen, here it is completely natural.

There isn’t a second onscreen you don’t believe these two aren’t brothers.

On the “correct” side of the law we have Jeff Bridges playing Sheriff Marcus Hamilton. Its fair to say Bridges has starred in some film projects which are “questionable” at best, he has also played this type of character before, both well in True Grit and not so well, R.I.P.D. (this is interestingly very similar to Del Toro in Sicario, he has played characters very similar to Alejandro before, but never to the nuance he achieves in that film). However it must be said that Jeff Bridges performance in this film is outstanding, (Bridges was nominated for an Oscar for his efforts although unfortunately did not win.) he creates a complete three dimensional character playing Hamilton and manages to make the soon-to-be retired sheriff sarcastic, dry and bitter while also being absolutely hilarious and completely likable. Its great character work from him and in one absolute stand-out (albeit very brief) scene which involves him, the wrath of god and a sniper, he manages to cycle through about five emotions (Revenge, victory, happiness, remorse, sadness) in about ten seconds which is a mightily impressive thing to witness on screen.

Playing Bridges counterpart is Gil Birmingham, an actor who criminally has not yet had a huge break in the business. Birmingham is perfect for the role of deputy Parker and provides a brilliant “sidekick” to Hamilton who almost always has a witty remark to put down Hamilton’s slander and banter toward him. Birmingham gets chance to really shine because hes given very serious dramatic monologues (note the scene outside the steakhouse when Parker discusses his ancestors) as well as tender funnier moments (Inside the Motel) its really nice to see the Director and the script give even these slightly smaller roles time to shine.

The two officers, certainly don’t play second fiddle to our protagonists and manage to dominate the screen in equal measure.

Similar to Pine and Foster the two officers have great rapport, just as the two men they are hunting are brothers, so are they. From the very first scene we meet them in, it is established simply from how the two act toward each-other that these are two men you know have been working together for a long time and have their own brotherhood. The connection the two have really helps the audience to be invested in both sides of the story and when the bullets start flying, and boy do they, we really care about who will come out of this alive.

I should make one last special mention to the films soundtrack that is composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, these guys are the perfect fit for this films score. I own the soundtrack on my phone and listen to quite often. Its a really fine piece of work that helps encapsulate the mood of the film, but is also perfectly listenable outside of watching it.

I could honestly talk about this film for days, along with Jeff Bridges the film itself was nominated for best picture at the Oscars and sadly did not win. As I have said at the beginning of this review, its the writing that really elevates everything in this film, I didn’t want to ruin too many brilliant moments in the film by simply copying dialogue down despite my heart telling me otherwise! So I really urge anyone reading this review to watch the film and just absorb some of the exchanges between characters in it.

Unfortunately no special or steelbook edition exist for the film and instead only a bog standard edition does. The special features contained within are all fine and have featurettes on character, performances and capturing the visuals of the film, all the stuff it does so well! You can pick up the film up from Zavvi or amazon here:





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