Friday, August 19, 2016


The Old West has been a pillar of cinema since literally day one. Over the past few years, the contemporary Western has seen some success, from the Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2009), and David Lowery’s AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013). By infusing the classical themes of the Old West in modern settings, the stage can be set for some great storytelling, which brings us to David Mackenzie’s HELL OR HIGH WATER.

In modern-day Texas, the Howard brothers (Toby and Tanner, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) go on a string of bank robberies in small sleepy towns. Hot on their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Like any good Western, HELL OR HIGH WATER is all about cops and robbers as they chase, evade, and play cat-and-mouse across the countryside. On the surface, the plot is fairly easy, but director David Mackenzie, working from a script by Tyler Sheridan (of TV’s SONS OF ANARCHY), gives the film a richness thanks to some excellent character work. Far from just bad guys, the Howard brothers are looking to get revenge against the bank which wiped out their family farm, and on the flip side, there’s the grumpy-old-man Ranger Hamilton and his partner Alberto who constantly pick on each other with insults about heritage and race (Alberto is part Mexican, part American Indian). The two sets of duos are very well developed, and each one has palpable reasons for their robbing and chasing. Taking things a step further, the characters could not be more different from their partners; Toby is cool and reserved while his brother Tanner is a loose cannon, Hamilton is near retirement and does things unorthodox, while his partner Gil is by-the-book. The contrast between characters is very well written and keeps things moving.

Tyler Sheridan’s script plays out like a love letter to small-town Texas, specifically the little people and their lifestyles. The film does some great world-building in establishing the small towns with shuttered up shops, closed down mills, and people who almost consider the brothers to be a modern day Robin Hood. The film is rich with culture and modern-day sensibilities, making it very relevant and powerful.

But back to the robbing and chasing…the robberies and gunfights are brutal and realistic, and the tension-building heading towards the climactic showdown is thicker than outback brush. Director David Mackenzie films the countryside beautifully, and the film has a classic and iconic feel to it. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provides a magnificent score.

Jeff Bridges is a blast as Ranger Hamilton. He’s a grump, but a lovable one, and also a career lawman burdened with the pending doom of boring retirement. He gets to show some serious emotion towards the end after a character death which is as shocking as it is sad (bring tissues). Gil Birmingham acts as a great foil to Bridges and the two are a joy to watch on-screen together. The show is stolen by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who are convincing not only as men from Texas but as brothers. The love and respect these two actors make happen between the brothers is the true heart of the film, and it beats steadily and strongly.

The final showdown ends with plenty of blood and tears, but before the film ends, it comes back with a quieter, yet equally effective showdown before riding off into the sunset. David Mackenzie has crafted a modern classic with HELL OR HIGH WATER. It is a beautiful and rich movie with classical storytelling elements; almost the kind of tall-tale one would tell around a campfire. It is emotional and powerful, making the Old West as real and relevant as it was 100 years ago.


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