Even in the barren, almost post-apocalyptic world of middle-of-nowhere Texas, not everyone’s motivations are one in the same. There are different connotations to “getting your hands dirty” depending on who you meet.
That’s the foundation of the premise for Hell or High Water, a marvelously tense and bleakly honest film built on contrasts, and on showing the interplay between those contrasts.
That isn’t to say the only way this film can be enjoyed is on a metaphysical level. It’s a more straightforward offering on the surface, and still an incredibly enjoyable and memorable experience, certainly one of the best to be had at the cinema this year so far.
One of the film’s biggest strengths lies in its script, which provides not only fully-realized characters with dynamic motives, but also ensures that nary a moment is wasted. Right from the opening sequence, it’s clear this is a smaller-scale, intimate film about two brothers robbing banks with different mindsets as they go about holding up tellers.
Chris Pine (Star Trek, The Finest Hours) and Ben Foster (Warcraft, Lone Survivor) are superb as the two brothers who take it upon themselves to become short-term criminals in order to save their family’s farm, at a time when big banks provide no favors to the citizens they serve. Both are virtually unrecognizable – in a good way – and their performances effectively convey why they’re doing what they’re doing, which isn’t completely similar.
The film does a good job showing the contrast between the two, but it would be wrong to say it focuses on them. Appropriately, just as much attention is placed on the rangers chasing them, as well as the local denizens who exhibit very different ways of enduring desperate times.
So much focus is also placed on the visual aesthetic, something immediately eye-catching and mesmerizing, especially when certain colors come into play that seem downright alien. Hell or High Water won’t win any awards for visual effects, but the way it highlights the solitary, lonely setting while still keeping an intimate gaze on its characters is worthy of recognition.
The music, however, easily has to be one of the top two or three scores of the year so far, and it would take some fantastic work by films in the coming months to overshadow it. It’s simultaneously subtle and ominous, like a coyote hiding behind a yucca while stalking its prey outside a lonely Texas town. The music itself is almost a willing participant in the on-screen heists.
While the narrative starts rather simply, it certainly gets more complex as the film goes on, having commented on multiple very real societal issues by the time the credits roll. There’s never a clear antagonist or protagonist as the film makes clear where characters came from and what fuels their actions, making for an effective and enticing character study of the lonely and destitute.
Hell or High Water also comments on the consequences of capitalism, its cyclical nature and the tendency of its proponents to fall victim to it. Consistently having enough money is a commodity that few can afford here, and the variety of ways that fact manifests itself amounts to the creation of a detailed world that at times seems like its holds the last remnants of civilization.
While exploring all these motifs and themes, the film remains briskly paced with huge entertainment value, and a climax that is both open-ended and also incredibly satisfying. Whether for the analytical filmgoer or the one just looking for a good time to be had, watching Hell or High Water once certainly isn’t enough.
Five or 10 times might not be sufficient, either. Not for this world, with is so fully realized and detailed that you’re sure to find something new with each viewing.
In a Nutshell
Hell or High Water is a tense, taught marvel of a film with much to offer for movie buffs of both the contemplative and spectator variety.
9 / 10
Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges
Directed by David Mackenzie