Hell or High Water, directed by Scott Mackenzie, is a film filled with so much character; from the landscape, to the little side characters in nowhere towns, and of course the characters who lead the film. This is a film that offers up so much to the audience, and it all feels to enjoyably watchable. It was a film that I could have happily watched another hour of, and that’s always a good response to have to a film. So let’s get this review on the move, and see how Hell or High Water shapes up.
In the film, Toby Howard – played by Chris Pine – enlists the help of his ex-convict brother, Tanner – played by Ben Foster – to rob a set of banks; with the end goal of saving their deceased mothers farm from being taken from them. While this is going on, it falls to two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton – played by Jeff Bridges – and Alberto Parker – played by Gil Birmingham – to apprehend the two bank thief’s, and see that their tear across the mid-west is stopped.
There are two sides to every story. In Hell or High Water, that is what the main thrust of the film is. We get to see both sides of a story, from the law-abiding side and from the criminal side. But what is so good about the way it is handled is that the film doesn’t telegraph to you what’s right and what’s wrong. On either side is a pair of characters: Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are the outlaws and Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are the men sent to track them down and apprehend them. We spend a lot of time with both pairs; seeing how they operate, learning about the close friendships that they have, and just generally getting to better know and understand who these people are; it is this that drives the film.
I think it’s the decision to handle things this way that then throws up some interesting moral dilemmas for the audience. In any other film, the Texas Rangers would be by the books good guys who never showed a side that some might deem wrong, while our two criminals would be tediously one-dimensional in their criminal ways – not in Hell or High Water. I began to really like both sets of characters; they felt like actual people, they were honest in their approach to situations, and most of all, the way in which the characters would interact with one another was just so refreshingly real.
On one side of the film we explore the relationship between brothers Toby and Tanner; two men who are committing crimes… but for a reason that is just. So you have a morally murky motivation for two of your main characters, but then what you also have are two characters that are very unique in whom they are. Toby (Chris Pine) is a rational, good-hearted person who simply wants to save his family’s farm and provide for his children; this is a man you can understand. Meanwhile Tanner (Ben Foster) has been out of prison for a year and his reasoning for helping his brother is assumedly because he wants to be a good brother, but it seems more likely that it’s because he revels in chaos and hurting people. So right here you have a set of characters (who are a main part in leading the film) that tug on your moral core, make you question if liking them and supporting their cause is the right thing to do. That! That is one of the elements that makes ‘Hell or High Water’ such an engrossing watch. I personally found myself supporting the Tanner brothers; they were likeable, funny and they were sticking it to “the man”. But of course the film caused me to question that support, which only heightened my involvement in the film.
On the other side you have the two characters that you’d expect to be pretty cut and dry: the Texas Rangers (the good guys). Nope. What we get here are two officers of the law that actually are presented like real human beings and not people who are married to THE JOB and think of nothing but THE JOB and always make sure that THE JOB is done. There are layers to them; we get to see two people who have clearly been friends for a long time. How is it so clear? It’s because of how they interact with one another; they make fun of each other, have little jokes that have probably been going on forever, they stick the other one with a difficult witness and then snicker with other people around them. This is one of those friendships where they feel like an old married couple, this is two people who know each other better than most people, and they also happen to be the men who are chasing the criminals that we also have an attachment too.
These two opposing dynamics of people we like makes for an interesting dilemma. You like Toby and Tanner, you also like Marcus and Alberto… but here’s the big problem: these two opposing forces are on an inevitable collision course, and they unfortunately haven’t had the chance to get to know the other pair life we have. You have to pick a side at some point and it’s probably not going to be easy which either side you pick, because that then means you have to see the other ones lose. It’s involvement like this and its depth like this that make ‘Hell or High Water’ such an achievement in film making. To make you, the audience, such a crucial part in the film is… emotional.
It’s then all made more difficult by the fact that the performances behind the characters are just so good. Chris Pine and Ben Forster become these likeable rogues, and bring something endearing to the roles that makes you want to support them. Meanwhile Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham have such a deep chemistry with one another; you really believe that these are two men who have been friends for years and years. It’s also nice to see Jeff Bridges appear in a film where it seems like he’s trying – it’s been a while since he’s had a film worth checking out. All round you have actors who become their roles, and only increase the quality of the watching experience.
I’ve talked a lot about the main characters in the film, but something I haven’t yet touched upon is something that the film also has in abundance, and that is the character of middle-America. What I mean by that is not only the landscape; large sprawling planes reminiscent of what you would see in old westerns. But there is also the character of the people our main characters come across. There are so many little side characters that pop up and steal a scene away from the seasoned actors and simply put a smile on your face. These little characters are so brilliantly written (which is something I’ll touch upon in a second) and so well realised; if I didn’t mention the waitress who so kindly offers T-bone steak, well then, that would be an oversight. There is so much to enjoy and take in that goes beyond the main focus of the film, and it’s those little gems that only help to build the world of the film.
So lastly I want to touch upon something that may be overlooked by some and that is the dialogue in this film. ‘Hell or High Water’ is written in such an honest way; how people talk to one another, the rhythm of their dialogue, just the genuine feel to it all makes for a realer feeling experience. Two old friends ribbing one another with jokes that some would see as offensive, brothers talking to one another in that way only brothers know how – saying, “go fuck yourself” but with a big smile. ‘Hell or High Water’ brings believability to itself, by feeling like an honest representation of where it is.
This is one of those films where throughout so much of it I was internally smiling; I knew early on that I was going to enjoy my time with this film and it certainly did not disappoint. Not only did the film have me smiling and laughing, it also had me emotionally engaged for the tougher moments, and it also through up some interesting moral dilemmas for me to tackle while watching it. But most of all what it gave me was an abundance of greatly realised characters who I could have watched so much more of.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind; I am absolutely recommending ‘Hell or High Water’. Strong characters, strong performances, and elements that test your moral standing; what a treat this film is, you have to get out to the cinema and see it.
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