I’ve been trying to catch Hell or High Water for a couple of weeks, now. My local theater didn’t get it and I haven’t been able to make it out of town and get to another theater until now. This is one of those movies that any self-respecting movie lover kind of has to see, due to the amazing reviews/word of mouth. Combine that with the fact that Jeff Bridges is extremely reliable when it comes to selecting quality projects and I went into this one feeling pretty optimistic.
Hell or High Water tells the story of Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively), two brothers and bank robbers in Texas, as they attempt to achieve their financial goals while being tracked by local law enforcement partners, Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).
There have been plenty of comparisons made between this film and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. There are definitely some similarities. The core concept of southern law enforcement trying to catch an active law-breaker or two and the general tone of Hell or High Water certainly invoke thoughts of that modern-day classic. But, to be honest, I enjoyed Hell or High Water significantly more than I did No Country.
The absolute highlight of the film for me was the playful banter between Bridges’s Hamilton and Birmingham’s Parker. I was (pleasantly) surprised by how outright funny the film is in parts. I chuckled at least ten or twelve times and outright laughed out loud once (which is more times than I laughed out loud at supposed comedy classics Shaun of the Dead and Superbad combined. Do that math.). Hamilton is one of my favorite characters of the year and Bridges’s performance is the best performance of the year, so far. Parker is extremely layered and complex and Bridges plays the part like Billy Joel plays a piano: easily, powerfully, and melodically. He hits every note and holds the viewer in the palm of his hand, taking them wherever he wants them to go. It’s still early in 2016, but I’ll be shocked if Bridges doesn’t get an Oscar nomination at the very least, if not a win.
The narrative itself begins as a somewhat run-of-the-mill crime caper and I was initially thinking to myself that I was far more entertained by the performances and dialogue than I was by the story. Certainly everybody brings their best to their respective roles and the dialogue is sharp, quick, and witty – especially for this type of film. But the longer the movie runs, the more it establishes itself as its own entity. All of the principle characters are given depth and believable motivation for their choices and their actions. It all escalates until the story culminates with a memorable and powerful climax with repercussions every bit as conflicting in their emotional resonance as the Howard brothers’ motivations, themselves.
Director David Mackenzie also respectably presents an intelligent and honest look at what open-carry laws truly result in when there’s a high-stakes situation unfolding, rather than what so many people want to believe would happen. An overwhelming majority of the most vocal open-carry advocates envision themselves as the Punisher, confidently rising up and taking out criminals with a single headshot or maybe scaring off an intruder without a single shot being fired due to their sheer intimidating presence, but they actually come across as Yosemite Sam, shouting, “Yee-hah!” and firing bullets everywhere, directly resulting in more death, destruction, and chaos. Mackenzie illustrates this well, taking advantage of the Texan setting and using those most closely associated with that kind of thinking as an example of foolishness. I like knowing that I can always turn to the movies for common sense and reason even after giving up trying to find it on my Facebook feed.
So, is Hell or High Water the best film of the year, as so many have boldly stated? I give you a completely committed . . . maybe! It’s certainly between this and Kubo and the Two Strings. The two films are as different as can be but of comparable quality. Because of their differences, each also has certain advantages over the other: Kubo is more thought-provoking, artistic, and difficult to make. Hell or High Water is more topical, well-rounded, and has the added benefit of tremendous live-action performances, though that’s not to take away from Kubo‘s equally impressive voice work. I’m sticking with Kubo simply as a result of its imagination and personal resonance. But I won’t argue with anyone who declares Hell or High Water as the year’s best, thus far, as long as they give Kubo its just due, as well. (Although, if you must choose, Kubo honestly needs the money more, even if they both deserve it.) Regardless, no list can be taken seriously without both of those films at – or at least near – the top.
Hell or High Water delivers on every single level and succeeds at each of its goals. Both of the parallel stories of the brothers and the deputies are easy to become invested in, thanks to smart writing and dexterous performances that are bound to be remembered during the upcoming awards season. A powerful climax will leave you reeling and asking yourself what it would take for you to break bad, and if we all have our limit, all while somehow managing to be every bit as entertaining as a more traditional mainstream-audience release. Believe the hype, folks. See it now and get in on the conversation!
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