The 400-Word Review: Hell or High Water
By Sean Collier
August 23, 2016
For the most part, the western genre seems content to be the realm of occasional throwbacks and modern re-imaginings. In many of the long-dormant genre’s recent big-screen appearances, audiences find a slightly updated period piece (such as The Homesman) or a gritty drama dressed in cowboy trappings (like No Country for Old Men).
It’s not hard to figure why the genre fell out of a favor. Set in a time period that predates cinema, the old west no longer captures the imagination of the public the way it once did. After all, the age of good guys and bad guys battling on the open range is long gone, right?
Well ... not so much, actually.
In Hell or High Water, a contemporary western from director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), makes a pretty compelling argument that the days of desperation and hard choices have returned for many Americans. And the broken, post-recession small towns of Texas bear more than a passing resemblance to the dusty saloons of the frontier.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are kicking off a run of small-time bank robberies — small bills from the cashier’s drawer, to avoid detection — across the Lone Star state. (Their motivations are revealed later in the film, so I won’t spoil them.) Meanwhile, career lawman Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is facing forced retirement from the Texas Rangers; much to the exasperation of his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), he’s determined to track down the brothers before he is put out to pasture.
The ensuing pursuit is much more contemplative than it is frantic, though the film’s moments of direct conflict are all the more harrowing for that fact. Hell or High Water has much to say about right and wrong, as all good westerns do; while its focus ignores certain realities of contemporary conflict (most notably race), its arguments are compelling.
Mostly, though, Hell or High Water is an excellent film. The four performances at the lead are perfect; Bridges and Foster are never better than in roles like these. The story is compelling and beautifully told. And somehow, despite its dire subject matter and bleak setting, Hell or High Water manages to be a lot of fun. I’m not sure it heralds a return for the genre, but it certainly makes the argument that the time for such a resurgence is right.
My Rating: 9/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark