Review by C.J. Bunce
For fans of the traditional Western, Hell or High Water is a Western in name only. Sure, it has the hallmarks: Frank and Jesse James-inspired bank robbers, it takes place in a Western enough locale, and there’s plenty of cowboy hats and even horses and cattle. But it’s something very different, and reviewers calling it a Western are setting the wrong expectations. Yes, it’s closer to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven than your typical fare, but not that close. A nontraditional Western? Barely, maybe. Better described it’s a drama in Western dress. It’s also a look at a place and time: West Texas, today. Which makes it in other ways a West Texas version of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. You’ll see plenty of life reflected with a Texas cultural twist. Good and bad. Strangely enough, if life is indeed reflected in the cinema each year, Hell or High Water is the best reflection of America to hit theaters in 2016.
In addition to the perfect Western title, Hell or High Water has the perfect imperfect hangman sheriff in its Ranger Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges in what is yet another brilliant supporting character role. If he hadn’t landed the Oscar for True Grit, he’d have it for this. Bridges plays another crotchety old man, he’s days from retirement, and all soaked in his own blissful ignorance of his racism, much like Clint Eastwood’s old man in Gran Torino and Eastwood’s own take on the Texas Ranger in pursuit in the 1993 “modern Western” A Perfect World. Bridges’ partner is the put-upon Comanche Ranger Alberto Parker, played by Gil Birmingham, an actor of actual Comanche lineage who has guest starred on numerous genre classic series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Veronica Mars, Castle, and even Riptide. At times Birmingham gets his Oscar-worthy moments, too, especially when he fires back at Hamilton with equally biting quips.
The Rangers are hunting down two brothers, played by Star Trek and Wonder Woman’s Chris Pine and 3:10 to Yuma and X: Men: The Last Stand’s Ben Foster, who have a strange plan to rob a Midland Texas chain of banks because they learned the banks’ network of video recording hardware is being updated, with the added bonus of being able to launder the money through an Oklahoma casino. The movie trailers laid out every aspect of the plot–why they need the money–more concisely than its laid out in the film, but the film is really part character study of the brothers, part indictment of the banking system, and the destruction of the family unit, and everything else wrong in the world. To that end this is a typical drama, but it has its moments, including a quality bank robber story.
Despite the trailer footage, Hell or High Water is only the barest of action film, with much of the movie very slowly paced, with at times a little too much contemplation and dreary, almost ghost town-like scenery. Regardless of the outcome, the result that there are going to be no winners here haunts both duos throughout the film. Although it’s probably the least exciting heist movie you’ll ever see, the best moments are the comedy bits, the banter between the two Rangers, the bumbling of the brothers every other step along their downward spiraling path toward the inevitable, a crucial conversation between a waitress and Pine’s character, and the mannerisms and unhelpfulness of all the townies. Hell or High Water is an easy watch, a contemplative film that just gives you a chance to see some good actors doing their thing.
Not for someone after the next great true Western (for that check out Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk), this is a must for Bridges’ fans and Pine completists, although a better action vehicle with Pine as a similar character can be found in 2010’s Unstoppable. A 2016 release, Hell or High Water is now available on streaming services and available on Blu-ray here at Amazon.com.