Hell or High Water: A Modern, Familiar Western

This is Part One of my 2017 Oscar Watch where I watch all of the Best Picture nominees in the weeks running up to the Academy Awards. For other entries, click here:

For all of my 2017 Academy Awards picks, click here.

Directed by David Mackenzie, 2016’s “Hell or High Water” is a tense, tightly written thriller set in contemporary west Texas. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively, decide to rob a string of Texas banks in order to keep their mother’s home from being foreclosed upon. With two Texas Rangers on their trail, Toby and Tanner struggle to avoid death, detainment, and becoming morally bankrupt by their actions.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the Howard Brothers

A Best Picture Nominee of the 2017 Academy Awards, “Hell or High Water” certainly deserves its high praise; nearly all aspects of the film are flawless. Releasing last Summer to little fanfare, “Hell or High Water” was a sleeper hit that is now on everyone’s radar due to its Oscar nomination. In truth, it is a shame that this film was overlooked—in a year with a drought of captivating films, “Hell or High Water” is a breath of fresh air that delivers a captivating modern Western similar in theme and quality to the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.”

The Brothers’ Crime

Most notably, all of the actors in “Hell or High Water” are superbly strong and their dialogue is expertly written. At a lean 102 minutes, “Hell or High Water” retains density with symbolic, poignant dialogue that can be interpreted in many different ways. This is a film that respects its audience and gives attentive viewers a lot to chew on; the dialogue is so smartly written that multiple views of “Hell or High Water” would uncover new layers in its characters and this is a testament to how strong Taylor Sheridan’s script is—he also wrote 2015’s superb “Sicario,” another modern Western tackling the drug war on the US-Mexico border.

Don’t look now…

Of course, a strong script would be meaningless if the actors were not able to portray the levels of depth that it prescribes. In particular, Chris Pine as Toby is surprisingly phenomenal. The level-headed, smarter, and more deliberate of the two brothers, this is a role unlike anything Pine has done in the past—Pine is perhaps best known as the smooth talking Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot series. Toby is a far cry from Captain Kirk, but Pine nails the subtle rage and intelligence of the character. In fact, Pine’s showing proves that he can pull off an Oscar-caliber performance; I always thought he was a good actor, but this is a surprisingly powerful turn.

Opposite of Chris Pine is Ben Foster as Tanner Howard and he is equally compelling in a different manner. Tanner is the reactive and violent brother who has experience as a criminal; if Toby is the mastermind, Tanner is the executor of the heists. Foster naturally plays the charismatic and volatile Tanner, making it look effortless. The interaction between Toby and Tanner is rich with dichotomies and tension as they disagree on the strategy of their crimes, but ultimately their love for each other is the most important aspect of the film.

Unsurprisingly, Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton steals the show. Despite strong performances from the entire cast, Bridges is in a league of his own. Affecting a believable Texas accent, Bridges is equal parts gruff, funny, and heartfelt. Just weeks away from retirement, the “one last job” cliché could have been overwrought, but Bridges adds complexity to Hamilton’s final days as a Texas Ranger. Most notably, the relationship with his partner, Alberto Parker played by Gil Birmingham, is deeply humanizing. They tease each other, challenge each other, and divulge the different life experiences of a white man and a hybrid Mexican-Native American descendant. A perfect foil to the Howard brothers, Alberto and Marcus explore a different type of relationship between an accepted and an outcast man.

Jeff Bridges and Alberto Parker as Texas Rangers

With two strong duos at the core of “Hell or High Water,” the film mixes great character interaction with intense action. Thanks to iconic and aggressive direction from David Mackenzie, the artistry is strong both in front of and behind the camera despite some overly familiar themes.

No Country for Old Tropes

Filmed like a classic Western with modern flair, Mackenzie uses beautiful long cuts, multiple music sequences, and tense close-ups during the bank heists. In addition, the landscape of west Texas is absolutely breathtaking; both magnificent and dilapidated due to the weakened oil industry, the setting evokes danger and strength at every turn.

Despite its strong writing, cast, and direction, “Hell or High Water” is not without its imperfections. Most notably, the theme of a changing, hardening world is strangely similar to 2007’s “No Country for Old Men” and the fact that “Hell of High Water” is another modern Western does not help the comparison. While “Hell or High Water” is a strong film, it does not manage to outdo the Coen Brothers’ classic “No Country for Old Men.”

Sorry, Friend-o

It is difficult to say that “Hell or High Water” would have been more successful if it had not used so many familiar tropes, but it is a near unavoidable comparison. However, “Hell or High Water” does deliver a slightly more concrete ending than the open-ended “No Country for Old Men.” Oddly enough, neither ending is more satisfying than the other; in my opinion, both films have overly vague endings, but it does not subtract from all of the power and tension before it. In addition, I believe both “Hell or High Water” and “No Country for Old Men” deserve their recognition from the Academy, but the Coen Brothers’ take on the theme is most powerful and, arguably, the modern classic that “Hell or High Water” tries to emulate, but never surpasses.

Why the Hell not?

If a modern-age Western with extremely strong elements interests you in any way, see “Hell of High Water.” Some themes might seem familiar to fans of the genre, but this film is a tremendous success that deserves its praise. Unfairly, this movie did not receive the commercial success that it should have. If you want more smoothly written, high-octane thrillers, go and support “Hell or High Water.” It is an engrossing look at America’s disenfranchised and a poignant dissection of the relationships between best friends and brothers in a an increasingly cruel world.


Author: The Scrivnerd

The purpose of this blog is to analyze my favorite works of art and release my (asinine) beliefs on an unsuspecting public. I hope that you enjoy my thoughts on these gems of film, television, video games, and literature. Feel free to leave a comment and I will try my best to answer you. Thank you for reading

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