Review: Hell or High Water


Hell or High Water

Directed by: David McKenzie

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Grade: A-

A damn near perfect film from talented director Mackenzie and writer of the similarly confident, slow-burn thriller Sicario. It’s the voice of of the characters that really sets the film apart. So few film writers have the same level of voice as do playwrights. It is due to that voice that this film about two bank robbing brothers stands out and above any bank heist or Western genre films from recent memory. Set in the recession-plagued dust of West Texas two brothers set to robbing branches of the bank that is set to foreclose on the land they grew up on.

Foster has the showier role as the loose-cannon brother with a criminal history. He is afforded shades of character in both his love for his brother and the unexpected backstory that conflicts with his love of crime. Foster has a tendency to overact and that is still true here, but Mackenzie keeps him reigned in enough so that he doesn’t topple the deliberate pace of the film. Pine plays the other brother who is motivated by love of family. It’ll get less attention, but Pine turns off the smarm and seems lived-in with his soft-spoken Toby determined and cautious as the jobs grow more dangerous.

The authorities are hot on their heels, as the brothers only rob drawers in denominations of 20 and under. The cat and mouse factor is keyed in by about to retire Jeff Bridges. One last case and all that jazz. The trickiest part of the film is balancing the humor (because it does have a few good laughs) from Bridges’ politically incorrect Ranger without it becoming a distraction. His partner is Mexian and Native American, and nigh a scene goes by without Bridges’ character making a crack about it. It seems that it’s there to make a point about these old ideas and old places dying away. His partner Alberto, is shown being hurt by the comments, and in turn Bridges seems hurt that his “humor” isn’t found funny. It does enough to humanize Alberto (and the added bonus of a strong performance from Birmingham) that it plays as a critique of Old West dying in the face of New West.

As Toby and Tanner close in on their final goal (which isn’t fully revealed until well into the film) everything culminates into one very well-staged shootout. Real stakes are present, and the filmmaking never falters. Mackenzie’s opening long-shot is a panoramic beauty, and really sets the stage for the intentional pace and explosions of unexpected and visceral violence. And for a Scot he does a great job of making Texas a character in the film. From the vistas and dust to the running gag of everyone having a gun. Throw in a score from Western specialist Nic Cave & Warren Ellis and you have familiar elements rearranged just enough, and with enough expertise it feels new and exciting.

Outside of some obvious ADR and the wince-inducing racist jokes, there is only a few other passages of dialogue that hit a bit on the nose (white people taking Indian land, banks taking it back). It also sticks the landing in the fatalistic ways you expect, and in a way you may not. It’s a gem of a film that deserves to be more than an indie favorite. A victory for mid-budget adult-film making.

If you liked Hell or High Water check out: Sicario, Starred Up, The Proposition


Posted on September 18, 2016, in Movies, reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Did you guys notice the byline on this one? I know, WP makes the byline so small most people probably don’t notice. But this review comes to us from our old friend, dwmcguff!! Good to have you back, man. Great review. Hell or Highwater wasn’t really on my radar, but your review has piqued my interest. I’ll have to check it out.

    If you enjoyed this review, dwmcguff has another one posting tomorrow. So make sure you come back for that one as well.


  2. Excellent review, I completely agree. Hell or High Water is an outstanding movie, the best written film I’ve seen this year. Razor sharp dialogue, amazing backdrop and score. There were no easy answers here and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way!


    • Dang, you guys are making me wish I had gone to see this instead of Sully. I’ll have to check it out.


      • I would recommend seeing SULLY also, but this is a smaller movie, with a lot less money and publicity behind it. So if it’s in your neighborhood take the opportunity to see it. It won’t be around for very long.


        • We had a power outage the weekend Sully opened. I was home alone, it was getting dark and there was no electricity or A/C. The power company estimated it would be about 4 hours before they got the power up again, so I figured that was just enough time to go to the movies. I was really limited in what I could see because I was looking for a showtime right in that sweet spot where I would get home as the power came back online. I opted for Sully just because of the showtime, but Hell or High Water was another possibility. Unless we have another power outage or similar set of circumstances, I probably won’t be venturing out to the multiplexes again any time soon. But I’ll make an effort to catch the movie when it’s on cable.

          Sully was decent. I didn’t regret seeing it. But all other things being equal, Hell or High Water may have appealed to me more.


      • I still want/need to see Sully. Eastwood is getting strong reviews with it and it looks to be an awards player. I was surprised to find HoH in my small town theatre, and thought Sully will be around a while (I live in Central Texas where the Hillary movie has been playing for 2 months. I assume Eastwood will have some staying power as well)


        • Oh man. I sympathize. I’m in the Northern KY/Greater Cincy area which is pretty dang conservative. But Hillary’s America had a relatively short run here. I remember standing in line for Ghostbusters and my daughter asked me what it was. I started to say “a bunch of bullshit” but I caught myself. Someone in line turned around and offered “propaganda” as an alternative description. I was very proud of my fellow moviegoers that day.

          I expect Sully will be a player come awards season and it’s not undeserved. I would compare Sully to American Sniper without the controversy. It’s a very safe movie, but well-executed.


  3. This movie was great. I couldn’t agree more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: