Perhaps the most critically-acclaimed film of the year so far, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers who decide to spend two days robbing banks to pay off a debt. Jeff Bridges also stars as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger just a few days from retirement who wants to catch these bank robbers before he hands in his badge. If it sounds like a western, that’s because it is, though it’s set in west Texas in 2016.
That’s almost all there is to the plot, though I’ll also mention that Tanner (who has spent ten years in prison for killing his father) and Toby (who is divorced, has two teenage sons, and recently took care of his bed-ridden mother for the last months of her life) have a compelling motive for their crimes. Toby, the brains behind the endeavour, had hoped the robberies would happen without violence. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way robberies go, which is why events inevitably take a nasty turn.
The acting of the three men mentioned above, as well as that of Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker, Hamilton’s partner), is exceptional, with Bridges delivering one of his finest performances (and that’s saying something!). Look for an Oscar nomination. Critics seem surprised by Pine’s acting ability, but after watching him in last year’s Z for Zachariah I wasn’t surprised. The actors are helped by the well-developed characters provided in the excellent screenplay (written by Taylor Sheridan). What makes the screenplay special is the way it keeps avoiding predictability despite its oft-told story idea, the way it mixes humour, drama and suspense, and the way it somehow manages to be both simple and complex at the same time. Best of all is the way it makes us think about a variety of moral questions and about the relationship between injustice and crime (not to mention its unusual take on redemptive violence).
The cinematography is another highlight of the film (just look at the shots above) and the score is strong. Everything I’ve written here makes it sound like a classic. And yet it didn’t feel entirely satisfying to me. I loved the acting, the strong dialogue, the tight direction and the cinematography, but there was something in the story that kept me from engaging with it the way I should have. It’s fantastic that we sympathize with every character in the film, but why wasn’t I more moved by that? It remains a mystery to me, so I’m willing to give Hell or High Water the **** it generally deserves, but I’m not sure it’ll make my top ten of the year.