Hell or High Water (2016)

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three star

I’m going to preface this review by saying that Hell or High Water is far outside my comfort zone in terms of genre. A story about a world-weary lawman attempting to chase down & outwit a pair of haphazard bankrobbers just days before his retirement, the film resembles an awful lot of ultra-macho neo-Westerns I’m often told are great, but usually leave me bored silly. The problem is fairly deep-seated too. Even the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men, which I’m sure is fantastic, has put me to sleep every single time I’ve tried to watch it, including twice in the theater. So, I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.

Outside being a fairly standard bankrobbing thriller, Hell or High Water mostly stands out as a screenwriter’s playground. Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, recognizes the rigid restraints of the film’s simple narrative & throws most of his weight into the its quietly humorous dialogue. When Jeff Bridges’s perpetually exhausted Texas Ranger asks a recently robbed bank teller whether her assailants were black or white, she retorts, “Their skin or their souls?” It’s these kinds of colorful turns of phrase that make him mutter to himself, “God, I love West Texas.” I can’t echo that sentiment, but I do appreciate the film’s ability to capture that terrain’s slow, desolate atmosphere by bringing the more action-packed aspects of the plot down to an occasional halt in favor of some porch sittin’ & beer drinkin’, a perfect stage for showy exchanges of phrase. Sheridan understands the glass beer bottles, vastly empty roads, grunts, football, and poverty that make up a large part of that state & he uses that terrain to stage a somewhat believable modern version of a Cowboys vs. Indians Western. One of those Native Americans just happens to be a cop (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Gil Birmingham) trying to hold his aging white partner together for a final ride. His cowboy opponents are two in-over-their-heads brothers living out a revenge plot similar to Jeff Nichols’s (far superior) Shotgun Stories, except their target is a predatory banking institution instead of a rival family. The only question is if the calm, collected half of the criminal duo (played by an admirably restrained Chris Pine) can hold together his wildcard brother (a grimy Ben Foster, who plays the part like Guy Fieri reimagined as a methed-out murderer), long enough to escape the cops’ wrath. The evenly-distributed amusement of the proficient dialogue leaves a lot of grey area of which side to root for here (although, I guess you’d have to be a monster to root for the banks), so the fun of Hell or High Water is mostly in watching the pieces fall into place in an inevitably satisfying way, whatever the result.

I can’t say for sure if I would’ve enjoyed Hell or High Water more if it were staged in a different setting or if it didn’t feature gruff country songs with lines like, “I am lost in the dust of the chase my life brings” (an aspect of the film Nick Cave had some apparent involvement with, speaking of things I’m often told are great but I don’t really understand). My brain does usually shut all the way off when it comes to certain macho genres like Westerns or James Bond flicks or straightforward war movies, though, and I have to admit I didn’t have that problem here. This was far from my Film of the Year, but I was mostly on board with its Who’re the Real Thieves, Really? approach to predatory banking & its last legs lawman performance from Jeff Bridges (which brought me back to the novelty for Kurt Russell’s similar role in last year’s Bone Tomahawk). Like I said, though, it’s the film’s dialogue that really makes it distinct and I suspect that aspect is what’s going to have the moviegoing dads, uncles, and grandfathers of the world chuckling to themselves in delight. This movie was seemingly made with that specific crowd in mind & I’m not sure they’re going to appreciate its finer charms more than I was able to tap into myself.

-Brandon Ledet

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5 thoughts on “Hell or High Water (2016)

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  4. I really think you need to learn to check your prejudices and preconceptions at the door when you see a movie. I, too, hate country music and Texans in general. But I don’t hate the sweeping panorama of the state’s wide open spaces in the film, and I love the music, NONE of which would ever be played on a country music radio station- not even the Waylon Jennings tune (unless there is some kind of progressive country station in Austin). Hell or High Water is just a small movie,with direction that does not waver, actors whose performances are achingly true, and without any high-falutin’ aspirations other than to be just really, really good.

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    • I do try to go into every film with an open mind (I paid to see this at the theater!), but this is a very difficult area of cinema for me to even focus on. Was just trying to be honest about that precondition upfront to help explain why I saw a Pretty Good movie where everyone else saw and Exceptionally Great one.

      -Brandon

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