Introduction: Sometimes I like to check out a film that’s a bit of an underdog – something in a league all its own in terms of story and character development. I was drawn to this film solely because of Chris Pine, whose work I first became familiar with through his portrayal as a young Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek revisions [not to mention he’s not an unattractive man 😉 ]. In an interview for this film, Pine admitted that he considered this a role of a lifetime and wanted to use it to branch out as an actor. I extend serious kudos to actors who don’t want to be typecast, so I was curious to see what appealed to him regarding this film and role. Needless to say, I ended up loving this movie, not only for Pine’s performance but also for everything the film represents, namely that originality, gripping storytelling, and compelling characters still exist in modern cinema. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: Texas brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land. For them, the hold-ups are just part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that seemed to have been stolen from under them. Justice seems to be theirs until they find themselves on the radar of Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), looking for one last grand pursuit on the eve of his retirement, and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Rangers on their heels, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the values of the Old and New West murderously collide.
My Take: First, it’s refreshing to watch a film that’s an original story. As a quick side bar, I think that’s what missing in modern cinema at the moment – there are rarely any original films. If you take a look at most of the movies released in the past five to ten years, many are based on franchises or are sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, or adaptations of literally everything from books to toys. While I take no issue with these types of films, the uninterrupted string of unoriginal material can get tiresome, and I miss watching a movie that is entirely its own product rather than a retelling of something else.
That’s what Hell or High Water provides. It’s not based on any pre-existing material or even a true story, but it certainly rings true with its rustic cinematography and organic characters. As stated earlier, I love everything this film represents, especially in today’s cinematic climate. While some of the more popular films these days seem to display little to no artistic merit (albeit not all), films such as Hell or High Water buck this trend by refusing to conform to the same-old story formulas and tired cliches. Instead, the writers and actors here clearly cared about the story they wanted to tell, so it’s a great example of authentic storytelling and not merely a pop culture product of the times.
Hell or High Water is uncomfortably current (in a good way) as its backdrops are recession-afflicted, downtrodden West Texas communities, and the Howard brothers – Toby and Tanner – call it home, for better or worse. The cinematography masterfully paints the world these brothers live in by combining urban grit with natural beauty, both of which reflect the story itself. Tanner and Toby’s lives are a mixture of the rough and the temperate, the daily grind along with the will to keep one’s head above water and the occasional moment of serenity and clarity.
I loved this film’s visual style as it offers a grand, natural scope that avoids dwarfing its subjects. (Fun factoid: this film was actually shot in New Mexico, not West Texas.) You can feel the grit of the dirt, bask in the unobstructed view of the setting sun, and come face-to-face with sprawling prairies. I love it when a film makes me feel like I’m right in the middle of its landscape, and Hell or High Water accomplishes this artfully yet never overstates itself so it avoids becoming gaudy or overly-sentimental.
Similarly, the soundtrack is fittingly understated, combining quiet melodies that linger beneath the surface and bluesy folk and Americana tracks that possess a perfect balance between rough and rustic accompaniment and heart-wrenching lyrics. In retrospect, it could have been easy to turn this film into an urban squalor film noir but it doesn’t do that, and I think it benefits from not taking that approach. At first, I assumed this was going to be akin to No Country for Old Men, but Hell or High Water is drastically different. It’s realistic, refusing to shy away from derelict towns and ugly truths, but it’s not so stark that the setting and story are depleted of all hope.
The same can be said for the narrative itself, which also avoids being too gloomy thanks to the dynamic between the brothers and the presence of Marcus Hamilton, the gruff, no-nonsense Texas Ranger determined to bring these bank robbers to justice. The film is easy to follow in this regard as it doesn’t have an over-inflated cast nor is it littered with numerous sub-plots. There are just two plots, both of which are given equal time. The secondary plot is Marcus’ attempts to track down the robbers, and the first plot focuses on Tanner and Toby as they strive to come up with the money to pay off the debt owed on their family ranch before the bank forecloses on the property. This is where the film takes a Robin Hood-esque slant as Toby’s aim is to raise enough money, not for any benefit for himself, but to secure his sons’ futures; hence, his actions are for the good of others, not for personal gain.
In the same way, Tanner serves as his accomplice but never appears interested in keeping any of the cash for himself (though he is tempted to gamble some of it at times). Tanner and Toby make a great team and their relationship feels extremely organic. These are two men who have lived rough lives, knowing nothing but poverty, and Toby is determined not to let his own children inherit this fate. In some ways, Hell or High Water reminded me of the 2015 film Heist staring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, which I’ve also reviewed. In both films, we have main characters who steal money from greedy power-holders in order to achieve a greater good. And to both films’ credit, audiences are never explicitly told whether to believe the main characters’ actions are good or bad, but, instead, are offered an open door onto the ensuing compelling moral drama.
Dramatic tension is used with much aplomb in Hell or High Water. One will be hard pressed to find any big budget set pieces here; instead, the film relies on emotional intensity and natural tension. Its pacing helps move the story along fluidly and never once did I feel like the narrative had taken a reprieve. Part of this is supported by the tightly-crafted, dual-edged plot that’s split nearly equally among its respective characters. The other part is thanks to subtle tension, which rises and falls appropriately throughout the story.
For me, the best example of this understated tension is when one of the brothers is stopped by Texas Rangers at a road block. All that happens in the scene is the brother hands an officer his wallet and waits to be waved through. Yet the audience knows that one wrong look or move will mean trouble. There isn’t even much dialogue in the scene or any loud, dramatic music – it’s just the brother waiting in his car. Yet it’s one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen in a movie in a long while and proves that sometimes stripped down moments can create the best hotbed for tension.
Concerning the cast, it’s kept modest and allows its principle leads (Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, and Ben Foster) to have plenty of room to grow and develop their respective characters without the fear of being crowded out. Chris Pine shines in the role of Toby, and I agree with his sentiments: this is a great role for him! Pine injects real, conflicted, and smartly downplayed human emotion into Toby, which causes his decisions to (let’s be fair here) commit crimes to not come easy. Unlike Tanner, during the bank robberies Toby is the quieter brother, the more nervous of the two. Thus, it’s clear that Toby realizes his plan, in terms of its execution, is highly questionable yet he feels he has no other option. Even during the robbery scenes when both brothers don face masks so the only part of their face that’s visible is their eyes, Pine expresses so much emotion – from desperation to uncertainty – just through his eyes alone, which is a mark of a good performer as he stays in character even when the audience can’t see his face.
But just as Toby doesn’t harbor a criminal’s heart, he’s also not a hardened man. He and Tanner are close, care about preserving what’s left of their family home, and protective of each other (though Tanner assumes more of the role of the watchful brother as he’s older). Along with trying to cover his tracks and meeting the foreclosure deadline, Toby contends with being a family man at a distance. His ex-wife remains aloof though we’re never told why their marriage fell apart. But he does his best to instill some sense of virtue into his sons. To one son, Toby asserts he doesn’t want him to make the same decisions he has made. It’s not that Toby believes he’s a worthless human being, but his remarks reveal his understanding of his own flawed moral compass. He knows that, ultimately, what he’s doing is wrong and he doesn’t want his sons to continue a legacy of transgression. As a whole, Pine may not be an easily recognized name but he’s definitely a gifted, versatile actor and deserves to be heralded and treated as a serious performer.
Another actor of significant note in this film is Jeff Bridges, who is also perfectly cast. Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, the aging Texas Ranger who is on the brink of retirement. However, the rash of bank robberies has piqued his interest, so he’s determined to see justice prevail before he calls it quits. Bridges brings a smart balance of gruffness and humor to his role where, in one moment, he’s a tough-as-nails lawman determined to catch his man (or, in this case, men) and very intelligently begins to piece clues together, and in the next moment he’s cracking jokes and taking playful jabs at his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). The banter between these men was downright hilarious as they’re both playing the straight man yet it’s clear Marcus speaks his mind and just lets it fly. Alberto doesn’t like it (especially as most of Marcus’ remarks critique either his Native American or his Mexican heritage) but he tolerates it for old time’s sake. Marcus is a dynamic character who avoids becoming the clueless cop cliche or over-zealous lawman trope, and Bridges injects enough on-point humor to iron out his character’s gravelly nature.
Yet another aspect I deeply appreciated about this film was that it avoids becoming entirely morally ambiguous. When dealing with a narrative showcasing two men committing felonies in order to protect their family’s property, one question that’s sure to arise is are these men in the right or in the wrong. Ergo, if we were in Toby and Tanner’s place, would we do the same? It’s a bit like in Disney’s Aladdin where Aladdin steals a loaf of bread, not for the act of depriving its owner, but because he’s homeless, penniless, and hungry. Hence, when circumstances arise that negatively affect our survival, how might we respond – would we/should we starve or steal? Rather than preach for any particular side or emotionally manipulate the audience into passing judgement, Hell or High Water simply allows the story to take its natural course.
However, the film stops just shy of never making any commentary on the brothers’ actions in light of what’s morally right and wrong. Marcus eventually gets the chance to confront one of the brothers and tells him that, no matter what he does, he will never find peace, meaning that the brother’s actions will haunt him no matter how much he does to try to move past his decisions or atone for his sins. In this brief moment, the film makes its moral stance undeniably clear – just because an action may seem right or intended for good does not mean the consequences it leaves in its wake will be erased or forgotten. This message is delivered subtly but it’s one that’s very much on-point with the narrative’s conclusion.
In the end, Hell or High Water is an understated masterpiece. It doesn’t bank on a high profile cast, it’s devoid of special effects and massive set pieces, and it doesn’t make a spectacle of itself in any way. Yet the lack thereof in all of these areas works in its favor. This film, which contains some nail-bitingly unexpected twists and turns, simply sets out to tell the story of two brothers. One is an ex-con and the other is a good man who wants what’s best for his family, yet both are trapped in circumstances beyond their control that propel them to chart their own course to a solution. Is it necessarily a moral course? The movie makes it plain that it isn’t yet never seeks to vilify either brother or hammer home a blatant moral. Instead, we’re asked to engage a rustic, gritty, narrative that offers a compelling moral dilemma with characters who, in many ways, allow us to see the imperfect sides of our selves.
Content Breakdown: Hell or High Water was given an R rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is relatively infrequent but does employ PG-13 and R-level words, chiefly the sh-word and the f-word. Also, Marcus often makes scathing remarks towards a fellow Ranger who is of both Native American and Mexican descent, but his comments are made entirely in jest (likewise, his co-worker never lashes out and seems to know that Marcus is just trying to annoy him for fun).
Violence – Seeing as the film hinges on the brothers committing multiple bank robberies, gun-related violence is present. For the most part, the brothers only wave their guns around in order to scare and intimidate bank employees but rarely ever engage in any actual acts of violence save for manhandling and yelling at bank workers or patrons. However, later in the film one robbery results in casualties and, from this point on, the violence escalates into several shootouts that leave vehicles riddled with bullets, one character grazed by a bullet, and at least two characters dead. That being said, these scenes avoid being gory save for brief images of bloody gunshot wounds. Also, we’re told that Tanner has a criminal record as he served a prison sentence for aggravated assault. Lastly, we learn that Tanner and Toby grew up in an abusive home, but no details are given as to the nature of the abuse other than a passing remark about receiving beatings by their father.
Sexual Material – Essentially none save for one extremely brief scene (that lasts only a few seconds) where Tanner has sex with a female hotel clerk. While it’s fairly obvious both are naked and we see sexual movement, nothing critical is shown and the scene is shot completely out of focus so both parties appear blurry (the real focus is on Toby who is trying to sleep in the same room). Elsewhere, a woman approaches Toby at a bar and tries to talk him into taking her to his room and letting her touch him (she never says where but it’s fairly obvious she’s a prostitute). Nothing further occurs as Tanner interrupts the exchange by scaring her off, accusing her of only being interested in his brother for money.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Hell or High Water stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the film’s story and content as there is nothing here that would be even remotely interesting to young viewers.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended for older teens (age 16 and older) rather than anyone younger for the same reasons above – the story and its themes are tailored towards a mature audience and, unless teens are fans of anyone in the cast, I doubt they would display much interest.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended and highly! This film, I imagine, would appeal to a wide array of interests, from fans of heist/Robin Hood-esque stories, to neo-Westerns, dramas, to even film noir that (in this film’s case) avoids becoming too dark.
Overall, Hell or High Water is a welcomed breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that’s brimming with big budget films and unoriginal stories. In short, it does everything a great film should do, setting itself ahead of the pack of attention-grabbing yet easily forgotten movies that seem to be in abundance these days. Hell or High Water is utter perfection in an understated way, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who appreciates good storytelling, awe-inspiring cinematography, fantastic acting, and compelling characters.