Praise be independent cinema. After a summer of many disappointing blockbusters, the great original films can be found playing the independent theaters. Movies such as Swiss Army Man and The Lobster have helped keep this summer alive in terms of inspiration and originality. Hell or High Water follows in their footsteps and might be the best film I’ve seen yet this year.
I will not spoil the plot of the film because one of the reasons why I enjoyed this movie is that I went in the theater cold. I had only seen the poster and knew Chris Pine and Ben Foster played a pair of criminal brothers and that Jeff Bridges was in it too. I knew that David Mackenzie (Perfect Sense) directed the film from a script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). And I saw that the film had a very high Rotten Tomatoes score (98%). But that’s it. Never saw a trailer or TV spot; I went in because my friend told me we had to see it and I’m so glad I did.
Hell or High Water is incredible in every sense of the word. From the opening shot to the closing dialogue, this film is a spectacle to behold. The film shares many qualities with other noir-westerns like No Country for Old Men through its Texan setting, a crime story, its surprising amount of humor, and the thrills it produces. Chris Pine and Ben Foster give great, believable performances as two brothers robbing a series of banks for mysterious reasons. Pine is more reserved and measured in his performance, hinting at the character’s intelligence and patience through his eyes and body language.
Foster has a lot more fun as the wild older brother. He is manic, but never crazy; excitable but never abrasive. Foster’s performance is a balancing act between normalcy and insanity, and thankfully he pulls it off. Foster is tremendous and has some of the best pieces of dialogue. He is sympathetic, even at his most cruel. The brotherly relationship between Foster and Pine’s characters is full of truth and love. I instantly bought them as brothers who lived on different sides of the law but still love each other. It is the one of the strongest piece of character work in a film full of them.
Jeff Bridges, as expected, is great as a US Marshall close to retiring who chases after Pine and Foster. But his partner, Alberto Parker, played by Gil Birmingham, is the beating heart of this picture. Throughout the film, his character has to casually brush off Bridges’ teasing racist comments towards him, constantly making fun of Alberto’s Mexican-Native American heritage. What Alberto has to say about law enforcement, racism, disappointment, and what it’s like to be a Native American is wonderful, and so refreshing when many similar characters in other pieces never get the chance to stand up and speak about their hardships or about their experiences. It’s a subtle and heart-wrenching performance that deserves to be praised. As great as Foster is, and as deserving he is of awards attention, I hope many award organizations remember Gil Birmingham’s standout performance later this year.
The film has many strengths, from the characters to the humorous dialogue (which was incredibly surprising after the very not funny but still excellent and depressing script Sheridan wrote for Sicario), to the themes. Hell or High Water thematically explores the meaning of brotherhood, old age, systemic poverty, racism, the bond between police partners, the modern role of a Native American. There is a lot on this film’s mind and it’s to its credit that the film works so well. Every question and issue raised is explored fully and none of themes feel empty or are dropped.
Hell or High Water is an incredible movie to experience, and I look forward to seeing it many more times and discovering new meanings and amazing shots. Mackenzie blocks each scene with precision and Sheridan’s script is meaningful without ever being pretentious or unsubtle. This is a great film with wonderful performances, tense robbery scenes, memorable characters, and rich themes. Go see this film, you won’t regret it.