Hell Or High Water (2016) Review: Old Fashioned Modern Western
The Western genre is classic in every sense of the word. Inherently their movies are love letters to a bygone era, not just in filmmaking, but life itself. They’re designed to be extremely simple stories, that instantly resonate with audiences. The villain is usually dressed in black, and the hero wears a white hat. Sometimes though, the villains are the good guys. Cops and sheriffs trying to take down the hero outlaw, who we can’t help but root for. Not to mention the dialogue is usually sharp, bordering on poetic. A really good western is probably one of my favourite things to watch.
That’s what I found in ‘Hell Or High Water’, a movie that’s being called the first major best picture contender of 2016. The story follows two brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard. Bank robbers with hearts of gold. Mostly. Instead of a life of crime for the hell of it, the Howard brothers are in it so their family can live without the crippling mortgage debt set upon them by the very soulless banks they seek to rob. It’s like Breaking Bad except instead of Meth, it’s bank robberies.
On the other side of things you have Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton. The humble lawman, two days from retirement, looking to go out in a blaze of glory, in one last case. His character is a cliche in a cowboy hat and a mustache but damn if Bridges isn’t spectacular as usual. The cast is great, but they’re made even better by the real star of this movie, the script. The dialogue in this movie feels entirely natural, but also fiendishly clever.Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the two brothers. Foster’s Tanner is an ex-con helping out Pine’s Toby with his foolproof plan. As much as Toby’s intentions might be pure, Tanner is less so, enjoying the thrill of it, as his brother trembles at the thought of harming innocent people. The way Pine and Foster portray these characters is seemingly effortless. Their characters feel fully realized, giving the drama surrounding them palpable weight.
As much as the actors have a grasp on their characters, the script has a grasp on the tone. The moments that are meant to be light are light, but they don’t at all detach from the tension. You see this a lot in the characters of the two brothers. Every time Ben Foster seems to revel in unconscionable violence, Chris Pine is mortified at it. It’s even harder as a viewer because Foster really does make violence seem fun, but then Pine spoils it by reminding you of silly things like “ethics”
The movie reconciles its conflicting messages in the central theme of family. As much as Pine wants to do anything else, he has to do it because family. As much as Ben Foster loves being a criminal, the only thing giving him any pause, is family. Even Jeff Bridges’ character is conflicted. The brothers are somewhat heroes of the people, robbing a bank not exactly well liked by the community, which is sort of like a big family, being a small town in the south where everyone knows everyone.
Since this movie is a western, it revels in a lot of western tropes. However, ‘Hell Or High Water’ uses your expectations to its advantage. What’s presented as a cliche gets turned on its head, in an attempt to make it feel fresh. As someone familiar with these tropes, I appreciated this effort, but found it a little bit gimmicky. The way they present the cliches are so heavy handed that you sort of expect a twist, since the alternative is a movie that borders on parody the way it draws attention to the same old tropes. And a twist that you expect is no twist at all.
Overall, I liked this movie a lot. I was able to feel for the characters, and really understand their points of view. Its treatment of violence and the events that surround this film are equal parts fantastical and harrowing. Precisely how it should be in cinema. I don’t think I’d peg it as a best picture winner, but it definitely deserves acclaim. Even if its ambition doesn’t exactly match its potential.
Rating: Big Screen Watch