Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence, Language throughout and brief Sexuality
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon, Gil Birmingham, Christopher W. Garcia, Dale Dickey & Kevin Rankin
I wasn’t exactly stoked for HELL OR HIGH WATER, though I had heard nothing but great things about it. The poster looked dull, the title was generic, and the trailer seemed to indicate this was destined to go straight to video-on-demand. In an unexpected twist of events, this film has gained a lot of momentum since its Cannes premiere, sports a staggering 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and is now playing in theaters across the nation. Having now seen HELL OR HIGH WATER, I can say that it’s a lot better than the marketing would indicate, but isn’t entirely free of clichés. From a sheer entertainment level, you’re not likely to care that much about its few minor flaws.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father trying to save his family’s farm from foreclosure. Tanner (Ben Foster) is Toby’s ex-con brother who would do anything to support his family. Together, these two brothers hatch a nearly foolproof series of bank robberies that involve robbing the branches of the very bank that’s trying to foreclose on their farm and then paying them back with their own money. Every tiny detail (from the getaway car to trading the money at a casino) is carefully ironed out, but the pair didn’t count on determined Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) to come looking for them. Aided by his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), Hamilton is looking for one last hurrah before his retirement. The two lawmen and two criminals start on a path towards each other that can only end in violence.
Despite having a premise that sounds like it packs plenty of action from start to finish, HELL OR HIGH WATER mainly focuses on its characters and the parallel storylines that feed into one another. The story of Toby and Tanner trying to save their farm through illegal means is highly entertaining and tense, but so is Hamilton and Alberto’s hunt for them. We see both sides of the conflict and our sympathies are undoubtedly tested when the two forces eventually collide. Though both storylines use a few well-worn clichés, it should be noted that the film often takes an unconventional route and indulges in quiet moments between the characters. This is especially true in the final minutes, which didn’t at all play out like I expected.
The interactions and conversations wouldn’t be nearly as fun or tense to watch if we didn’t care about these characters. HELL OR HIGH WATER has stellar performances across the board. Chris Pine may struggle with certain accents (see THE FINEST HOURS), but he pulls off a convincing Southern drawl and makes Toby into a compelling anti-hero worthy of the viewer’s sympathies. Though he’s much more of a reckless psycho, Ben Foster’s Tanner has his share of emotional scenes and ultimately comes off as a complex character…even if he’s hard to like.
Jeff Bridges is fantastic as Ranger Hamilton. This is the best Jeff Bridges has been in years (to say the least) and stands out as one of the best performances of his entire career. Gil Birmingham is great as Hamilton’s sidekick, who gets a lot of genuine laughs to ease the escalating tension. The constant “good” roles of Bridges and Birmingham contrasted with Pine and Foster’s “bad” roles make for an old-fashioned western feeling in an otherwise complicated crime thriller. The beautifully shot Texas setting (which is actually Eastern New Mexico substituting for West Texas) certainly lends to that as well, with isolation being a key factor in many scenes.
HELL OR HIGH WATER has a few faults. A couple of plot developments are very predictable. After all, there are only so many ways that this story can play out. However, the conclusion left me surprised in a very pleasant way. The message about banks being the real bad guys is also a bit too heavy-handed. We see frequent loan ads and “for sale” signs on the road, a scummy bank manager is used as comic relief, bystanders commend the bank robberies, and the looming threat of foreclosure is omnipresent. I felt like these bits were laid on a bit too thick and momentarily smothered the script’s mostly clever nature.
In spite of its problems, HELL OR HIGH WATER is a great piece of entertainment. The film has lots of witty banter, tense moments, quiet emotional scenes and complex characters worth rooting for (on both sides of the law). The cinematography has a naturalistic beauty that lends a classier feeling to the endearingly old-fashioned main conflict. Though clichés weigh the film down ever so slightly, HELL OR HIGH WATER is a solid modern western mixed with a tense crime thriller. If that sounds up your alley, then give this film a shot!