Perfectly crafted and thoroughly entertaining, Hell or High Water is worth all of the praise and then some.
Hell or High Water really is as good as they say it is. Not too long, not too heavy going, it combines perfect tone, great script, impeccable acting and characters and plot that prove both interesting and endearing.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are out collecting money to pay off the mortgage on their mother’s farm so they can take the land back from the bank, in some of the most realistic and exciting bank robbery scenes going. Nearly retired ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and family man Alberto (Gil Birmingham) decide to take one last gig together to catch the two offenders.
It runs like a modern western, good guys chasing the bad across the endless American desert, but also strikes the black heart and soul that every man, woman and child has the capacity to possess. It isn’t just about Toby and Tanner, or the two rangers on their tail; everything has been given the attention to detail and time it deserved, from the brother’s complex relationship organically manifesting, to the grumpy waitress that serves Hamilton and Alberto. One line or one hundred lines, the film’s main characters are supported by a network of real people holding up its foundations. The microcosm represented by these small town inhabitants, the brothers among them, with all their trials and tribulations, is amplified by the macrocosm of the plot, where their motivations and frustrations are fully realised and the consequences felt.
In truth, the two brothers steal the show, but Bridges and Birmingham are just as entertaining to watch. At times heartfelt and funny, with poignant symbolism thrown in sparingly and provocatively for good measure. The vicious circle and muddy waters that the film chooses to wade through, not least concerning the role of Texas and the notoriously righteous and gun totting natives, provide shades of grey to combat the traditional western ultimatums that categorise everyone into either the good, the bad or the ugly. Most of the characters in this film are all three, apart from one significant exception, and the end of the film provides not exactly a cliffhanger but a mountain of conflicted feelings toward retribution and a question of whether it was rightly sought and rightfully deserved by all the parties concerned.
The men who follow the brothers after the last robbery are the same adrenaline junkies as Tanner, who all take justice into their own hands; Toby is trying to do right by his family just as Alberto does every day on the job for the ones he loves. It’s not morally ambiguous as it is morally overwhelming and the colourful history of the American West that serves as the backdrop to this story, along with its rugged terrain that is selflessly sacrificed to the beholder, is beautifully misleading. At the heart of it all, it’s people doing things for the people they love, and questioning whether that trumps moral obligation.
Hell or High Water (2016), directed by David Mackenzie, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal. Certificate 15.