"Hell or High Water" (2016) - Rated R / Runtime: 102 minutes
Directed by David Mackenzie
Review by: JJ Mortimer
A modern day western with a smooth mix of The Fugitive in the atmosphere of No Country for Old Men, director David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water is a movie so effortlessly natural in direction, pacing, and performances that it stands out not only as the year's first real Oscar contender, but as a highlight to great film making in the past handful of years.
Hell or High Water is a movie I immediately wanted to watch through again; a film so full of great acting and emotional substance that future viewings will surely uncover glanced-upon moments and subtexts not seen on the first viewing. The last film I can remember wanting to see the very moment it ended (but for different reasons) was Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed, another film where not a single frame is wasted during its fulfilling run time.
That is perhaps the best thing overall I can attribute to this film working so well, that everything about it - from Taylor Sheridan's tight script, to Mackenzie's direction, and to the superb performances from the entire cast - make the film feel so effortlessly natural and real. There is a great balance of human drama and witty humor, and much care was put in to establishing the non-melodramatic tone that maintains its overall levity, and keeps it from taking on a feeling of being too "scripted."
Hell or High Water encompasses the true Texas feel, a contemporary western that almost seems out of place in the over indulgence of high-action and CGI popcorn fare so common in Hollywood films today. This is a film with nary a fraction of a percentage of the "action" of a Suicide Squad, but because this film understands emotional substance and the dynamics of character amidst said action, ends up being infinitely more effective (and entertaining) in three minutes of screen time than two hours of robots destroying buildings in densely populated cities could ever be. This is a film that knows when to pull the trigger, with results that emotionally feel real, and often unexpected due to its care for its core characters.
The real stars of the film are the performances, with a real surprise being the subtle, often subdued performance from Chris Pine as Toby. Where Ben Foster's portrayal of Tanner, the reckless, often careless and abrasive brother of Toby, utilizes his acting skills that were well-established in performances earlier in his career, Chris Pine shows real depth and calm not expected from a man whose career was defined by the manic energy of the Star Trek reboot. Pine, as the divorced father with a sense of duty and conviction to do what it takes to ensure the well-being of his family, really nails his role home and underplays it just well enough as not to not appear pretentious. There is a real tension in the necessary duties of the two brothers as they rob banks to gather money to save their deceased mother's ranch, which ends up being an effective contrast to the often jovial and down-home attitude of the two Texas Rangers tasked to apprehend the criminals.
Jeff Bridges is a sure-fire guarantee for another Oscar nomination. Essentially playing the Sam Gerard role from The Fugitive, Jeff Bridges' performance of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton brings real old-school bravado and humor to the role, a man on the brink of mandatory retirement whose constant ribbing and poking-fun of his partner/successor Alberto (Gil Birmingham) ends up being the heart of the film. In what can only be described as a moment of perfect casting and a seemingly "lighting-in-a-bottle" display of effective directing and writing to support an actor who gives a shit about his performance, Bridges encapsulates the heart of an aging Texas lawman with an effortless display of veteran ease. Nearly every line of dialogue, especially in his banter with his partner, felt perfect and kept in tone with the realistic, dramatic nature of the film.
This is one of those movies you just need to go in and watch with very little context or knowledge as to the overall plot or finer details of the film. Watch it for the sharp, well-paced editing that makes its run time chip by briskly; the cinematography that maintains a dusty, sweaty feeling about everything around it; and the music from composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that underscores the atmosphere effectively without becoming overbearing.
What must also be noted along with how good the film's performances really are is in some of the film's final scenes. Without spoiling anything, there is a particular emotional reaction from Jeff Bridges that is so real that, in its ten or so seconds, should alone win him an Oscar. There is also dialogue between lawman and lawbreaker at the conclusion that very easily could have been played by John Wayne had a version of this film been made four decades ago. This is a film that isn't afraid to let the audience think without spelling out or concluding every little detail on screen.
A true modern-day classic, and a masterpiece of acting and directing. A must-see film for 2016.