Taylor Sheridan, writer of Hell or High Water, has just one other writing credit to his name; 2015’s gritty hit Sicario. With Hell or High Water, his follow-up, Sheridan may have set his stake in Hollywood as a raw and talented force to watch out for, especially since he’s attached to write Sicario follow-up Soldado, and is set to make his directorial debut next year with Wind River.
Hell or High Water begins like all good westerns do, with a bank robbery in a tumbleweed-laden small town with few signs of life. While not a western in the classical term, all western genre tropes are front and present: bandito brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) traverse the dry and dusty landscape of west Texas and its beautifully barren vistas, robbing banks along the way; the long arm of Texas Rangers’ law (Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are hot on their trail; and no western is complete without a few shootouts.
Ex-con and trigger-happy Tanner (Foster) is devoted to assisting his brother Toby (Pine) in a brilliantly conceived plan with larger implications than the petty robberies themselves. Instead of galloping out of town on horseback, the Howard brothers burn-rubber and escape by cars and trucks. Instead of robbing citizens for the sake of an easy buck, the Howards take the Bonnie and Clyde route and rob villainous and “conspiratorial” banks to take back what these capitalists have stolen from ordinary men and women.
Of course, it turns out those marked banks are the very same ones that helped put their now-dead mother in debt and are now threatening to seize the family farm.
The soon-to-retire Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham) are hot on the chase to figure out who exactly these thieves are before their spree spirals out of control. The Howard brothers’ plan appears so well-planned and executed that it will require the Texas Rangers to use their wits to catch the two by predicting their next moves.
Here is a gritty and compelling drama that takes hold with its fine performances and never lets up. Ben Foster, an actor I hoped would really breakout after his scene-stealing performance in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, takes the whole damn show as Tanner. From beginning to end you truly feel like Tanner is about to burst, unleashing an even more dangerous and deranged man. Chris Pine is astounding as the melancholy and down-and-out “nice-guy” trying to survive within a broken system while dealing with his estranged family and ex-wife (Marin Ireland). It’s a galaxy away from his typical blockbuster roles in Star Trek.
Jeff Bridges does what he’s been doing the last few years (take a look at his gruffy performances in Crazy Heart and RIPD for example). While not iconic, this is one of his best roles since True Grit, one that really stretches his capabilities in a performance that’s tough and powerful as the prototypical Texan with an added bit of arrogance.
However, it’s Gil Birmingham who really offers the best performance of the two as Bridges’ half-Mexican, half-Native American partner and, perhaps, his only real friend (though he’d never admit it). Together the duo shares an unbelievable chemistry, shining from scene to scene on their trek for justice and sense in a world gone awry trading off insults and deep philosophical inquiries with equal effort.
Directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) with confidence and matched with gorgeous cinematography from Giles Nuttgens, as well as a phenomenal script by Sheridan, the film is an achievement in all departments and one of the year’s best. It’s a crime drama that escalates into a quasi-actioner in its third act, yet still has something to say, yet never feels forced, like a clash between The Grapes of Wrath and a modern-day western. Hell or High Water is compellingly raw and highly entertaining, spellbinding and captivating from its inoculating opening scene to its final decisive moments.