One of my favorite movies of 2015 was a film called Sicario. It took an interesting look at the moral ambiguities that are a part of controlling the actions of the Mexican cartels on the American side of the border. It was a perfectly paced and beautifully shot film. As excellent as director Denis Villeneuve did on that film, the writer was the star of the show, and that writer was Taylor Sheridan, an actor who decided to try his hand at screenwriting. It payed off wonderfully, and now we have his sophomore effort titled Hell or High Water. I’ve seen a lot of really good movies this year, but none of them have reached the heights in terms of film making and storytelling that is seen in Hell or High Water. As of right now, I have to say that this may be one of, if not the best movie of the year.
Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are two brothers who are desperate to stop their family farm from being foreclosed. Their last resort is to begin a chain of bank robberies to raise money to pay off the loan that was unfairly designated by the banks. Of course, this is a very illegal solution, and therefore catches the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a tough as nails officer who wants one last successful case before he packs everything in and retires. What Hamilton doesn’t understand about these two brothers is just how desperate they are to save the one thing their family has to care for and make money with. This begins a chase through many different towns to find justice, but the question remains if the brothers are the ones to suffer the long arm of the law.
This film is directed by a guy named David Mackenzie, and I have to admit that I’ve never seen another one of his movies so I have no basis to really judge him or the rest of his work. I will say, if it’s anything like Hell or High Water, I’d love to check it out. This is a beautiful looking film, and it’s clear that Mackenzie went in with a very clear vision of how this movie should look. From the very first scene I was hooked by the expressive camera movement and the way it helped tell the story. Credit also has to be given to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens for the work he did with Mackenzie to make this film look so beautiful. There are scenes on southern highways with fields that are on fire or being completely destroyed in the search of oil, and with Mackenzie’s and Nuttgens’ talents it is made to look like a portrait of a dystopian America. Add Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’ creeping score to all this and you’ve got yourself something really special.
One of the first things that intrigued me about this movie was the cast. It’s hard to choose just one protagonist, but the one that really sticks out as the main character is Toby, played by Chris Pine. I really only know Chris Pine as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek movies, so I didn’t have too high expectations for him. That being said I was surprised by his performance and confidence in his character. It’s a more subtle performance than everyone else’s, but it’s just what the movie and the character needed to really work. I have a firm belief that Ben Foster is one of the most underrated actors working today. Every movie I’ve seen him in, even if I didn’t like the movie, I could never say anything bad about Foster. He brings his A-game once again in Hell or High Water, and it didn’t take long for him to become my favorite character in the movie. Finally, Jeff Bridges brings a lot of depth to the character of Marcus Hamilton. He’s a confident but melancholy character who hides behind insults and racism when that confidence falters. All of these character complexities and idiosyncrasies are brought out by the fine actors, but if it wasn’t for the writer, this movie wouldn’t be what it is.
That’s what brings us to the real star of the show, and that person is Taylor Sheridan. Like I said before, I loved his screenplay for Sicario and Hell or High Water is a perfect way to follow up the success of his first film. On the surface, this film works as a great neo-western filled with excellent characters and a screenplay that is paced very well. It’s not so slow that it gets boring but it’s not so fast that you don’t have any time to think. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface than a tale of bank robberies in small Texas towns. Like Sicario, Hell or High Water uses this story as a cautionary tale about racism, poverty, corrupt banks, big business, and even more abstract ideas like self worth and family. There’s so much to be discussed after seeing this movie that it would be impossible just to talk about the story and not about the different themes and motifs that shine throughout the film. I can’t wait to see more from Sheridan.
I’ve seen a lot of great movies this year, and at first I thought The Jungle Book was going to stay in the number one spot for my favorite movie of 2016. Now we have a new champion. Hell or High Water is without a doubt the best movie I’ve seen all year so far. The characters are rich, the actors are completely in touch with their roles, the film is just beautiful to look at, and Sheridan’s screenplay is going to have to be a contender for Best Screenplay come Oscar season. This is a movie about an era, a place, and people desperate to survive. If you only see one movie this year, make it Hell or High Water.