In today’s climate of endless sequels and superhero blockbusters, I almost forgot how great a pure Western can be. Fact is, Hollywood has provided very few reminders in recent years. What was the last great Western? The Coens’ True Grit in 2010 (full disclosure: I have not seen 2015’s Slow West)? Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder why many believe that the western genre is dead. But before we call in the cinematic coroner, I urge you to see Hell or High Water, an original, modern western that may just be one of the year’s best films.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers and partners in crime in the midst of a bank robbing spree in West Texas. Though their personalities could not be more different— Toby (Pine) is a quiet, stoic man of few words, while Tanner (Foster) is a wild, unpredictable firecracker who is just as fun as he is dangerous— the brothers share a common mission. They are methodically robbing rural branches of one bank in Texas, being sure to only take what they planned to from each branch, with a very specific fundraising goal in mind. They do not harass patrons any more than they need to and get in and out without violence whenever possible. In case it sounds Robin Hood-esque, make no mistake about it: these are not good people. But, these men (especially Toby, who masterminds each heist) have principles, and the audience understands their motivations, which makes Hell or High Water an empathetic journey while remaining a criminal one. Of course, no good Western would be without a foil for our antiheroes, and that comes in the form of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a senior Texas ranger on the brink of retirement who is assigned one last case before riding off into the sunset. With his Colombo-like charm and an obsessive interest in catching these thieves, Hamilton trails the Howard brothers across Texas in an effort to anticipate their next move. As with any good demonstration of the genre, the stage is set as the film progresses, with our characters on an inevitable collision course that results in a final, climactic showdown.
Hell or High Water obviously plays with the tropes of the genre— an officer who is mere days away from retirement, “blood being thicker than water”, etc.— but Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is anything but common. The writer, who also penned Sicario, infuses Hell or High Water with commentary that vividly illuminates the state of affairs in Texas unlike anything we’ve really seen on-screen previously. Citizens have widespread contempt for banks, who seem to have facilitated the take-over of land from the Native Americans, only to secure that land for themselves once the owner cannot pay their mortgage. Racism against Native Americans also seems as pervasive as the poverty throughout Texas in Hell or High Water. These dynamics are an incredibly interesting backdrop for the story being told, and these realities are woven into the story in an impactful and meaningful way that affects the trajectory of the story throughout. Character development is handled with similar care; the backstories of these characters are not explained via flashback or expository dialogue. Rather, the audience is rewarded for paying attention to small exchanges as events unfold, teasing out what makes these people tick in equal measure all the way up to the last frame. On top of that, the script crackles with wit and juggles its tone wondrously. The film doles out thrills, drama, and comedy just when they’re needed, making Hell or High Water as entertaining as it is substantial. It is truly one of the best scripts I have seen put to film in a long time.
The direction, cinematography, and acting is equally superlative. Director David Mackenzie trusts the quality of the script and talent of his actors; he depicts Hell or High Water in a straightforward, cinematic fashion. Grand, sweeping shots of the vistas in West Texas bookend scenes where the camera slowly pushes in on an actor expertly delivering a monologue in one take. He juxtaposes that with shaky, quick-cut robbery and getaway scenes that are heart-pounding to behold. It’s just thoughtful, great filmmaking. And the acting drives all of these elements home. Most will say that Jeff Bridges steals the show as a brilliant, hilarious curmudgeon, and I would not be surprised if his name was brought up during Oscar season. But I was most surprised by Chris Pine, who usually plays good-looking, charismatic characters. Pine’s Toby is quiet and regretful, hunching his shoulders as if to bury his dark heart even further in his chest. It’s an astounding turn for Pine and easily one of his best performances. The same can be said for Ben Foster, a proven-great character actor who had a difficult job here. Tanner is a bad man, and if you do not understand why Toby loves his brother, the whole story falls apart. Foster understands this, and makes Tanner a crazy, life-of-the-party type of guy who, despite being misguided and amoral, will do anything for his brother. Their conflicted relationship is endearing and serves as the core for the story, so when the shit hits the fan in the third act, we as an audience understand what is at stake and the result will be bittersweet, no matter the outcome.
Hell or High Water is an exemplary modern Western. It’s also a great heist movie, family drama, and dare I say dangerous comedy. Though this year, in my opinion, has been a disappointing one for movies, Hell or High Water is a quiet beacon of what a great script, devoted actors, and steady direction can do. It may end up as one of the year’s best films. It certainly is so far.
Hell or High Water opens in Philly theaters today.