In a stunning twist of cinematic events, the western genre can actually adapt to modern times. Hell or High Water demonstrates just how effective a simple story can be if it’s executed well. Despite an easily forgotten, very quiet release, this understated masterpiece becomes relevant again now that we’ve hit award season. Hell or High Water may not walk away with any hardware, but it’s an essential piece of any quest you may have to watch every great movie of 2016.
This is a difficult movie to describe and do justice as the same time. The premise is very simple. Two brothers rob Texas banks in an effort to save their family’s home from the clutches of today’s housing market. An on-his-way-out cop and his partner pursue the dastardly duo for a “one last ride” type of police adventure. There are no more than four or five significant characters in the film, the plot doesn’t overcomplicate itself, and the action/drama is kept under control throughout the story. Yet the movie functions at full power from start to finish.
Character development is a perennial key to moviemaking success. Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges form an acting trio that creates suspense and intrigue in an otherwise average plot. Each backstory, motivation and character quirk feels completely natural. There isn’t a single line of the script that feels forced or contrived in any way. Hell or High Water is a clinic for teaching aspiring filmmakers how to reach the full potential of a given concept. Less is more this time around, and these nuanced performances make the “who to root for” conversation very unclear.
Chris Pine is as a good a pick for the modernized Captain Kirk as we could possibly have. With that said, it’s nice to be reminded that this leading man isn’t just a character. He’s an actor, and he’s a very good one. His subtleties portraying a blue-collar mastermind criminal allow a relatable nature in what could’ve been a despicable character. Ben Foster is a sympathetic loose canon, unlike your more typical crazy-man supporting roles. His understandably unstable presence perfectly offsets Pine’s sense of composure and poise throughout the film. And the dialogue between the two is as authentic as any banter between on-screen siblings can be. Jeff Bridges finds balance opposite the dynamic duo by providing an old-school, “just can’t let it go” officer of the law that keeps the plot moving forward at a perfect pace.
Hell or High Water is the kind of movie that can make old-fashioned Texas justice cool again. Most kids prefer super heroes or fast cars, but the occasional neo-western has its place in modern cinema if the finished product is this good. In many ways, this film felt like Texas’ very own Heat. The point of view follows law-breakers and law-enforcers alike, creating a great rivalry despite minimally shared screen-time. Both provide excellent crime dramas with mixed and morally ambiguous perspectives.
Despite the high praise, I’m not sure Hell or High Water fits into this award season as a winner in any category. Its very presence and featured nominations speak to just how well this average concept was executed. There may not be enough content or depth to blow you away but, if you enjoy movies that get the absolute most out of their own material, Hell or High Water is a 2016 must see.