Hell or High Water revolves around two brothers (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) who in order to save the family ranch from being repossessed commit a series of bank robberies in Texas with almost retired Ranger, Jeff Bridges, chasing them down.
Director David McKenzie (who also directed the excellent Starred Up) really lays down a marker cinematically with Hell or High Water and impressively balances all the moving parts of the film together. Hell or High Water is uncomplicated in so many ways when looking at the plot but it is the tone that McKenzie absolutely nails which gives the viewer an extra layer of understanding to the motive of the characters in this particular time under these particular circumstances. From start to finish there are numerous filler shots of a desolate and economically depleted areas of Texas, shops boarded up, unfinished construction of houses and numerous oil drills that litter the landscape to really drive home the impression that there is little hope for anyone living in and around these areas. Combine these visuals with Nick Cave & Warren Ellis doing the score and what the film does is successfully give the story depth without the characters necessarily having to do much more than the plot requires. If you are familiar with the kind of score Cave & Ellis produce you will see what a perfect fit it is for this film. As with their work on The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James and The Road there is a real understanding of what was needed and the tone of this music embodies nature of the journey the main characters are on in a bare and deserted environment and it just meshes together perfectly.
Chris Pine & Ben Foster play the bank robbing brothers, Pine a divorcee’ who owes large amounts of child support to his ex and Foster who has only been out of jail a short time and is a wild card. These two both bring excellent performances and especially Foster, who I think can overdo it at times, stays away from many of the cliche’s and brings some real emotion to the character. There is instant chemistry between these two and there is not a single scene wasted where you don’t find out a little snippet of information either about their sibling relationship of their backstory. Equally Pine is on a level with Foster and it is nice to see him step away from his Star Trek role to immerse himself in something a little bit different. Jeff Bridges is the Ranger that is tasked with tracking them down and is the closest thing to a cliche’ in the movie. He is old school with a Texas drawl, a more than mildly racist sense of humor and is a crack shot with a gun, although given these traits Bridges turns the character into something more humanising that is necessary a sum of those parts mentioned. He’s old, and looks it, age is getting the best of him and while is out of touch with the technological advancements of society has very solid deductive reasoning. He embodies being one of the last cowboys, or at least the attitude of one, around and gives the impression that he’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than face the emptiness of retirement sitting on his porch. Each of the main characters has their own smaller plot line and each of them is given equal time to flesh out and is balanced against the only one thing that connects them all which is the robberies. It’s a skill that is taken for granted in film and shows how director McKenzie succeeds in bringing it all together.
The film moves briskly and at just under 1 hour 40 minutes there is plenty to get stuck in to. The action is tense and grabs your attention in a non Hollywood sort of way. There is a realism that runs throughout all of the set pieces that fits in with the desperate tone of the plot and how grounded the characters are. It is not all doom and gloom though and particularly in the first half there are plenty of funny moments. Most of it is dry black humour and some of it is physical but the dead pan nature of the way it was written is the perfect sort of comedy for this sort of film.
Even though at its center it is heist caper there is a lot of heart and emotion that underpins the film that comes across in different ways. The secondary characters are mostly the citizens of the local towns who have had their property repossessed by the bank or lost their jobs and this ends up complimenting to motives of Pine and Foster. Combine this with how sympathetic you as a viewer start to become with the brothers relationship and suddenly you are wanting them to get away with it as much as you are wanting Bridges to catch them. The villain changes from these desperate characters to the faceless corporations in the forms of the bank that are stripping the southern parts of the country bare. Again this is another level of realism there that completely relates to the modern day person.
Hell or High Water ends up coming across almost as a sentimental cowboy tale but in a time where the last of their kind have died out. You have a gun-slinging law man chasing down the hold ups of a couple of anti heroes who in desperate times resort to desperate measures. It’s fantastically acted and has a dirty and depleted tone to that runs throughout that complements the plot. A wonderful score accompanies the goings on and this film is definitely worth the price of admission.