Taylor Sheridan has proven himself as a force to be reckoned with, having gotten his start by writing and starring in the FX television show Sons of Anarchy, which reveled in the gritty portrayal of a motorcycle gang in California’s Central Valley. As the show wrapped up, Sheridan began writing film scripts with the first being the Denis Villeneuve directed Sicario, which tackled the world of drug trafficking across the Texas/Mexico border. Hell or High Water, his second feature film, returns him to Texas for a different kind of crime thriller. It is a story of cowboys, bank robbers, and Rangers that would be right at home in the Old West, but finds itself stranded in good old 2016 to great allegorical effect.
The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers who begin a crime spree across West Texas as bank robbers. Toby is a divorced father while his brother Tanner is a wild card ex-convict. They have a personal stake in hitting these banks and in doing so they make a lot of noise. This noise is heard by a West Texas Ranger named Marcus Hamilton, played by an extra gravelly Jeff Bridges, who decides to track the brothers down with the help of his partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham. As they travel through the smoldering heat of Texas, both pairs of men learn more about their home and each other before all hell begins to break lose between them.
Sicario was a precisely made film that kept a cold and distant tone, so it is surprising to find such an earnest focus on character and setting in Hell or High Water. The film is being sold as a Coen Brothers-lite thriller, when it is actually a thematically deep character piece about the people who occupy a place that is being manipulated and is slowly sliding into despair. In every direction, homes are being taken away and businesses are being shut down by those with more. Land that means so much to those who own it is simply swiped away. It starts to beg the question of whether or not certain crimes are justified if the people committing those crimes are left with no other alternatives to protect the well-being of themselves and their families. There is nostalgia for the times of old that seep through every frame of this film, as if such times hold more promises of stability and growth than the time these people occupy today.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster portray two of these desperate people with extraordinary performances. Chris Pine is subdued and thoughtful while Ben Foster dives in deep, becoming completely unrecognizable. Both of these performers deserve recognition once awards season comes into full swing, particularly Foster who brings a surprising level of sympathy to his very troubled character. The relationship between both Pine and foster is rich and tangible and behind every moment of brotherly love and silly bickering is a history that feels authentically established.
Rounding out our group of protagonists are Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, who also give excellent performances that provide a different perspective on the dwindling landscape that they call home. As with the actual brothers, there is a sense of brotherhood between the two, despite the rampant negativity that often rears its ugly head. These are characters that despite their flaws are truly sympathetic, so when the third act finally explodes into bloody confrontation, there is a dreadful weight to it as it becomes clear that this cannot wrap up with a pretty bow on top.
A film with this much heaviness on its mind could easily become cynical and alienating, but Hell or High Water transcends such limitations with a warm sense of truthful humanity thanks to Taylor Sheridan’s intelligent script and the exceptional cast, as well as their director. Though relatively new to the scene, director David Mackenzie shoots with a mature grace, taking his time to soak in the wide landscapes and the clear skies. He is not afraid to let the film take on a slower pace to give it time to breathe and develop. There is restraint and focus in every scene, so despite the deliberate pacing, it is always enthralling and fascinating to witness. When the thrills finally arrive, they hit hard because they are earned by a confident sense of direction and a methodically paced script for Mackenzie to mine for substantial depth.
What could have easily ended up as a bombastic and hyper violent B-movie has instead become a thoughtful meditation on brotherly love and the implications of silent oppression. The film is not afraid to point fingers, but it never lets any agenda overpower its insightful script, richly drawn characters, and Oscar worthy cast. At the end of a summer that was full of overblown and disappointing blockbusters, Hell or High Water is a slow burn that leaves a lasting singe. It is one of the best films of the year and it would be a crime to miss it.