Top-notch performances from a talented cast form the back bone of director David Mackenzie’s contemporary take on the western heist genre, but Hell or High Water is more than a well-executed thriller. It is a carefully crafted film that isn’t afraid to cast a bold light on modern issues.
Chris Pine (Star Trek, People Like Us) and Ben Foster (The Mechanic, 3:10 to Yuma) star as brothers – one’s a divorced father and the other is an ex-convict – who take to robbing local Texas banks in order to save the family ranch after their mother’s death. Attempting to put an end to their crime streak is Marcus Hamilton – a gruff and politically-incorrect Texas Ranger on the cusp of retirement portrayed to perfection by Jeff Bridges (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) – and his partner, Alberto (Twilight’s Gil Birmingham). While Foster and Pine offer expertly delivered brotherly banter, Bridges and Birmingham steal the show. Laced with generational and racial tension, the dynamic between the rangers is both nuanced and engaging. Rather than fall back on overdone stereotypes, Hell or High Water takes the time to develop its characters into complex and fully formed human beings.
The film establishes its atmosphere early on. As the brothers drive through rural Texas, the landscape is thrown into sharp focus. This isn’t the romanticised wild west of the 20th century’s spaghetti western or the highly aestheticized pastiche of Quinten Tarantino’s latest works. David Mackenzie shows us a Texan landscape that, though beautifully shot, is anything but pleasing. This is poverty: trailers, fields and pastures dotted with oil wells, haves and have-nots.
Much praise can (and should) be heaped on Hell or High Water’s meticulous pacing, characterization and cinematography, as well as its masterful soundtrack. The real achievement of Mackenzie’s film is that it can get everything right, and still incorporate issues of class and race without simplifying these concerns or preaching solutions. Incorporating these themes pushes the film from a decent and enjoyable heist flick to a relevant work of art that will stick with viewers after the credits roll without leaving them feeling as though they have been force-fed preachy social commentary.
We need more films like Hell or High Water. Films that fit within the limits of a given genre, but aren’t afraid to challenge and even question convention. Films that, while holding a mirror up to the real world and all of it’s many imperfections and atrocities, are nonetheless fun to watch and give us characters that we can sympathize with and root for.
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