“One of the best, most compelling, most realistic films of 2016”

by Steve Pulaski

David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is the first American film in years – maybe since Killing Them Softly and Out of the Furnace – to paint such a vivid and true picture of much of the country’s landscape. Overcast skies are cast over signs promising debt relief, boasting “for sale” signs on presumably foreclosed properties, and campaign signs and images for leaders that will more than likely benefit themselves before even thinking about you or I. Other signs promise fair loans on vehicles for people with bad or no credit, while others speak the words of a collapsed economy too clearly – “OUT OF BUSINESS.”

In Killing Them Softly, we saw professional hitmen take a broken America and play the game as it was meant to be played – to benefit the thieves, the able, and the hawkish. In Out of the Furnace, we saw the Bible belt of the country, an already perpetually struggling sector of the land of the free, continue to be burdened by economic turmoil and the working class smothered by bills, overworked and underpaid. In Hell or High Water, we are caught somewhere in an uncomfortable middle; we watch as two brothers, who have just lost their mother, pull off petty bank robberies throughout the West Texas area, getting just enough money to be richer than they were, but just little enough as to where larger, more eye-catching sums of money would give them away. The men do this to pay off their family’s Texas farm, which they’ve just learned is a hotspot for oil and could bring them more money than they’ve ever seen before.

Hell or High Water
Directed by
David Mackenzie
Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine
Release Date
12 August 2016
Steve’s Grade: A+

The brothers are Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively). Tanner is the hot-head, in and out of jail as if it had revolving doors with his name on them, while Toby is a tad more composed and cautious of the situations in which he gets himself. Nonetheless, both men are trouble in the eyes of the law and those eyes belong to Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grumbly old codger with a molasses-thick Texas drawl, who nervously eyes a retirement life of porch-sitting and Shiner Bock-drinking after he catches these two robbers. His Mexican/Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is often on the receiving end of joking stereotypes of Alberto’s colorful heritage, most of which he just brushes off. In the meantime, these two men have bank robbers to catch and they’ll scour the entire area in their bone-white 4×4 to do so.

Hell or High Water is a pot-boiling, menacing piece of work if I’ve ever seen one. A tried and true American film and a striking example of its crime/Western genre in a modern yet traditionalist sense, this is a film that explodes with energy and charisma. Its sun-soaked setting and its glorious rural photography (by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens) echo the work of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Sicario) in visual crispness and character. The suspense in the film also echoes their work; the tension is thick and unrelenting, as these brothers orchestrate these guerrilla-style robberies that nonetheless result in sizable payoffs for them. They wind up taking their money to casinos and using a bit of it to spend on beater cars in order to continue their operations without getting caught.

When the film cuts away to Hamilton and Parker, the film does anything but lose steam. We watch a mannered and cocksure Bridges, in yet another damn-fine, intense role, captivate us with his unflinching demeanor, which prompts arrogance and amiable. Even Birmingham, a frequent punching-bag of Bridges’ Hamilton’s typical geezer racism, doesn’t get the short end of the stick. He’s quieter, more reserved, but nonetheless impacting.

Then there’s Foster and Pine, both in probably the best roles they’ve played thus far, with the emotional and personal levels to resonate with someone in this same kind of socioeconomic status who has had the serious thought about doing exactly what their characters do throughout the course of the film. In a powerful monologue, Pine shuts up anyone who would even dare say these brothers are plain stupid for their decisions to do what they do. While it’s not the logical nor practical move in most people’s minds, Pine states how he has watched his family and his parents live poor lives; their poverty is passed on through generations, like a family farm or heirlooms. Their heirloom has been poverty for the longest time, and finally, they are about to change that. If you can’t understand their motivations, you’re lucky; you probably have never been in his nor his brother’s situation before.

The tragedy of Hell or High Water is the same one that faced Out of the Furnace and even Ramin Bahrani’s similar 99 Homes in that these are films that are hard to get people to see. The low-key releases don’t help, but these are real-life stories made for adults, and when you have a country built up of many people still recovering from the effects of the historic 2008 economic collapse, you have many people who do not want to see a film about the same kind of hardships and troubles they faced. They’d rather see something heartfelt and nostalgic like Pete’s Dragon or even funny and escapist like Central Intelligence.

Just know that if you look the other way when faced with this film you’re missing one of the best, most compelling, most realistic films of 2016.