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Hell or High Water

There was a time, not all that long ago, where the Western was one of the most popular and reliable genres in all of film. For decades, audiences were enthralled by the tales of the sprawling plains, and the cowboys that protected them. sf-3In modern times, however, the Western had been a dying breed. You’ll see one or two every year or so, but for the most part, filmmakers, as well as audiences themselves, have moved on.

They say that absence makes the heart grow founder, and maybe that’s part of the reason I was so enthralled with the relentlessly exciting HELL OR HIGH WATER. Set in a dying section of West Texas, it delivers a stark, barren, and unexplored glimpse into the destruction of the American dream. It is a tale set against a background of hollowed out homes, broken spirits, and an embrace of the Open Carry law.

HELL OR HIGH WATER opens with a brazen bank robbery. Two men in ski masks force their way into a bank as its first teller arrives, and demands that she open the drawers and give them all of the loose bills and no denominations over $20. What they didn’t realize, was that because the branch had not yet opened for the day, all of the cash was in a safe that she didn’t have access to. As a result, the robbers and the teller are forced to awkwardly (and rather comically) wait until the manager arrives. A short time later, the duo is speeding away, having successfully pulled off the job that they came to do.

The ski-mask clad partners are Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster,) brothers who have devised a plan to make some serious cash. They waste no time heading to another town, and pulling another brazen robbery. Once again, they elude the authorities, and get away with the cash.

As the Howard brothers pull off their low-key heists, aging Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is reaching the end of his career. The Ranger is set to retire in a matter of days, and sees the bank robberies his one last, great caper. He is gruff, honest, and unabashedly straight-forward, and believes that there are worse ways to leave a career, and the world, than in a violent blaze of glory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is remarkable in a virtually every aspect of filmmaking. Director David Mackenzie’s presentation of the sprawling, sandy, and desolate Texas landscape is stunning in its simplicity. Equally haunting and beautiful, it showcases crumbling homes, failing farmlands, and debt-relief signs as far as the eye can see. While a few properties boast the promise of untold riches in the form of oil dregs, most exude a sunken sense of failure and heartache. In addition to the strangely beautiful visuals, the dialogue, written by Taylor Sheridan, is smart and snappy, garnering big, unexpected and welcomed laughs amidst the seething intensity.

Though Toby and Tanner are the “bad guys,” that doesn’t mean that you don’t root for their success. This is due, in large part, to Pine’s portrayal of Toby. While his brother is hot-headed, impulsive, and dangerous, Toby is far more relatable and likable. He has reached a point in his life where desperation has taken over, and he has resorted to extraordinary measures in order to ensure that his family will have the stability to survive the crumbling economic environment. And, while Pine may be sympathetic, Foster gives another savage performance as Tanner. Frighteningly believable, he is a lifelong criminal who holds familial bonds above everything else. He realizes that their quest is doomed for failure, yet, because his brother asked, he is with him until the bitter end.sf-1

It should come as no surprise that Bridges shines, as always, as the crusty law-man looking to crack one last case. Fearing retirement more than he ever trembled at the thought of a criminal, he trades barbs with his partner while providing insight into what will make him an effective successor. He’s an old-school in his methods and approach, and scoffs at political-correctness and diplomacy.

​HELL OR HIGH WATER may not have been the most high-profile of releases in 2016, but it is certainly one of the best. Offering thrills, laughs, and cunning observations on the Texan state of mind, it is a Western that manages to transcend its genre and emerge as a thoughtful and engaging drama.

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Brian Miller
Film Critic
Based out of Central New York, Brian Miller is a film critic who works in television, radio, and print. Providing passionate and energetic takes on every movie he sees, he looks for the best in a movie, not the worst.