Hell Or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie.
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Buck Taylor, Gregory Cruz, Keith Meriweather.

“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation”

Scottish director David Mackenzie has steadily been making a name for himself over the years with some strong, low-key work in his native Scotland; Hallam Foe, Young Adam and, especially, Perfect Sense showcased his obvious abilities. It would seem that it was his superb prison drama Starred Up in 2013 that caught everyone’s eye, though. Hell or High Water now sees him taking his first venture onto American soil but it doesn’t hinder his abilities in the slightest. If anything, it has proven that Mackenzie is a director of genuine quality.

Plot: Needing to pay off the reverse mortgage on their recently deceased Mother’s ranche, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) target several branches of the Texas Midland Bank to raise the money. This invites the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is doggedly determined in tracking them down and putting an end to their spate of robberies.

It doesn’t take long to realise that Hell or High Water is a very different type of western. It’s one that, for obvious reasons, has been labelled as a “neo-western” but it’s contemporary nature is the very angle in which it’s able to fully explore its themes. The west has changed and the end of its way of life is fast approaching the characters of Taylor Sheridan’s dense script. He makes regular mention of the passage of time, ever changing landscapes and epoch’s; if it wasn’t the white settlers taking the land from the natives then it’s the banks foreclosing on it, forcing families into debt and desperation.

This is ultimately the motivation that drives the antagonists as other subtle hints on the state of the American economy are delivered under the guise of a crime/heist film. What we see on the surface of Hell or High Water doesn’t begin to describe the many layers underneath. And that’s ultimately what sets it apart from most other films of the genre.

As mentioned, Sheridan’s script is multilayered and he also incorporates the themes of brotherly love, loss, family responsibility and ownership which are demonstrated through crisp dialogue and genuinely dramatic (and sometimes darkly humorous) exchanges between the mismatched characters.

Speaking of which, the characters are authentically drawn while also excellently played by the three leads; Pine exudes a brooding intensity while Foster is allowed more room to explore the unhinged sociopath. Now that Bridges is getting older, he has pretty much mastered the surly old-codger routine and does so again with great authority and panache.

There’s a deliberate pace to the film, so those expecting tension filled bank robberies and high speed chases will have to be patient. These moments are provided but they come at the cost of investing your time in the characters. And it’s an investment that pays off. It also helps that it’s beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens and Mackenzie makes good use of the photography while employing his meditative approach and showing an assured confidence in his direction.

A rich and rewarding western crime story that delivers on so many levels. It’s broad strokes signify a maturity and that maturity is tied up with a very satisfying conclusion. One of the best of 2016.

Mark Walker

Trivia: The film’s original title was “Comancheria” named after the the region of New Mexico, West Texas where the film is set. The nearby areas to these where occupied by the Comanche before the 1860’s.

33 Responses to “Hell Or High Water”

  1. Heeeey brother. Been a while. Great to read your thoughts on this one. You picked a goodie here. It just fell outside my Top 20 list but that’s not a knock on it. Just good competition. The one line thing that held me back a bit was the ending. I just didn’t fully buy it. I don’t want to spoil anything here but I’m anxious to give it another look.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey bro! Yeah, it’s been a bit difficult the get the blogging bug back again but I felt I had to pitch in my two cents worth on this flick. I liked it a lot man. At first, I had to get used to the slow pace but it really delivered when I went with it. Didn’t have any problems with the ending at all. Don’t want to drop any spoilers but I thought it was perfect. Bridges’ reluctance to retire explains his approach. Pine too. There’s unfinished business going on. Fabulous film.


  2. I’m glad you liked it, Mark. I loved it. The ending made sense to me. He bucked the system and there was nothing for Bridges, the old Ranger, to do but admire him for his cleverness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great piece, Mark! I really liked this film. It wasn’t too heavy and was well-bañanced, and the three actors were on point! One of the best of 2016, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. brettmkane Says:

    “Maturity” is definitely the key word here. It’s surprisingly intelligent, thoughtful, and understated, which is why it’s so great. Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more, Brett. You have mentioned in one sentence all the things that make this film work.

      Thanks for dropping by and reading mate. And I’m happy to hear you share the same enthusiasm for it as I do.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Had a feeling before I read this you’d appreciate it, Mark. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! You know me too well, my friend. I did appreciate this. Very much so. It was an absolutely superb drama, crime flick and contemporary western. Three genres that I have a big admiration for. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • A compelling one, at that. It’s use of social comment (in this case, realization of the banditry of our banking establishment and the after effects post-Great Recession) recalls a distinct ’70s vibe. The surprise here, for me anyways, was the work of Chris Pine. You knew scene-chewers like Beau Bridges and Ben Foster would get there moments, but Pine’s work should get rewarded. With this and Star Trek Beyond (another that caught me off guard), Pine had a fine 2016.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. The social commentary was a very nice touch and the inclusion of Bridges’ Native American deputy had his own issues with ownership. All of this was nicely placed.

        Got to agree on Pine. Bridges and Foster had the juicier roles but Pine really excelled in an understated role. I’ve never really been his biggest fan but he was great here.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Mark. Good to see your stuff again. Great review as always; this one’s high on the list. Hope your festive season was a good one?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A neo western, count me in.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice review Mark, and good to see you back. I’ve very much enjoyed the plethora of neo-westerns that have come out in the past several years, and if this is anything like No Country for Old Men, it should be a hell of a ride.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you sir. It’s feels good to be back. Hopefully I can keep it up.

      This is a very strong film, man. It really clicked with me. No Country is probably the best of all neo-westerns but Hell or High Water is definitely among some of the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is one of my top films of this year. I liked how the script and the performances added complexity to the trope of immoral criminals.

    I would appreciate if you would check out my 100 Word Review at https://scribblesofstageandscreen.com/2016/12/16/hell-or-high-water-black-comedy-road-movie-with-heart-100-word-review/

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s one of my top films as well. I honestly didn’t expect the layers involved but that’s what really made it. Fabulous performances, a very dense and intelligent script and solid direction. Everything just came together on this one.

      Thanks for commenting and I’ll be sure to swing by on that link. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great review! Keep hearing such good things about this. Will keep my eyes peeled!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Loved this, up there as one of my favourites of 2016. Everything worked, I talked about it non stop for about a week to my missus, couldn’t get it out of my head. So good!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Still one of my favourites of 2016 too bro! This was an absolutely solid flick. I was very impressed with it. The acting was top class and it had deeper themes running through it as well. I couldn’t stop thinking about it either. There was so many layers to it.

      Liked by 1 person

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