Hell or High Water (2016): A Modern Depression Film (Review)

Chris Pratt and Ben Foster in Hell or High Water

In many ways Hell or High Water is a modern-day depression era film. Helmed by Brit director David Mackenzie from a script written by actor/writer Taylor Sheridan, the film follows to down-at-their-luck Texas brothers who are robbing a specific set of banks. 

Chris Pine; Toby Howard, and Ben Foster; Tanner Howard, are the brothers and Jeff Bridges, along with his Texas Ranger partner Gil Birmingham hunt the two men down. It will be the last case of soon to be retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and the Howard brothers are only stealing enough cash to set up Toby’s estranged family.

The film is a tad slow and methodical, even a little predicable – especially towards the end of the film – but overall it hits all its marks. There is the odd surprise and Bridges may just steal the film with his reaction in the desert after one brother is taken out.

Hamilton “takes the shot” and in an almost thrown away moment ranges to convincingly portray a number of emotions in a few frames. It shows just why this Oscar winner is a sure bet for any film that requires not just massive acting chops but the cojones to know when to pull a coup. Whatever Bridges was paid for his smaller role was not enough.

Mackenzie manages to emulate, to a great extent, the murky and under-bellied world depicted so well by the Coen Bros. “No Country for Old Men” springs to mind as does the 1984 film “Blood Simple.” Both films are set in rural Texas and both about people trying to rise above their station despite the odds against them.

While the film can be seen as a homage to brotherly love and a cry of outrage against the banks who take advantage of the less well off in society, it also shows the opposite side of the same coin. Bridges’ character is a man “out of time” who works to get one last case solved before he is forced to retire.

Hell or High Water is also about family and how even dysfunctional ones can come together when they need to. Foster’s character, a repeat offender who really does not fit into society as a “useful” member helps out his straight brother. The siblings may not see eye-t0-eye on how to rob banks but they manage to work pretty well together.

Equally fractious is relationship between the two Rangers. They come across as being a bit too prickly but their jibes are good natured underneath those cutting remarks issued by both Hamilton and Parker. These two men have worked together long enough to have that brother’s in arms love that evolves regardless of the job performed.

Pine and Foster play well off one another and this works well for the film.  Bridges and Birmingham also fit together nicely as the lawmen who are chasing the bank robbers down. The whole story, regardless of the “familial” theme in the film, feels a bit “Bonnie and Clyde.”

The robbers take “small pickings” to keep the cops guessing and to make taking them that bit more difficult.  It ends in a sort of stalemate situation that feels very “western” in nature and overall the film is entertaining.

Hell or High Water is a solid 5 star film. It is evocative of a modern western with tinges of the great depression added on. The performances are solid and the director manages to pay homage to other “modern” western/cop films.

Towards the very end of the film, where Tanner is driving up to stage his final stand, the area and the path leading to the hills where the convict brother buys his brother some breathing space, looks much like the beginning of the Donald Segel film Coogan’s Bluff.

This alone shows an awareness of a cross-genre film that also takes place in the desert, although the 1968 film starts in Arizona and ends on New York.  Mackenzie clearly loves these types of films and applies himself accordingly.

Catch this one if you can, if for no other reason that to see Jeff Bridges ply his magic on more than one occasion in the film. The film is rated ‘R’ and has some nudity, a little sex and violence. There is some gore but it is not overly intrusive. There is not an overabundance of viscera.

Check out the trailer below:

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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