Hell or High Water is a western film directed by David Mackenzie, with an original screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. The film follows Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of bank robberies in West Texas in an effort to scrape together enough funds to save their family’s ranch. However, two Texas Rangers, led by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), are right on the Howard brothers’ heels the entire way.
To be completely honest, until Hell or High Water was released theatrically in August, I had barely any knowledge about what the film was even about—if it were not for my favorite film podcast reviewing the movie shortly after its release, I would not have even been able to give someone a cursory description of the plot. I did not end up seeing the film until December, but when I finally did, I tweeted this:
If my No. 1 film did not exist this year, Hell or High Water would have clearly ended up with my coveted “Best Film of the Year” moniker—the movie is exhilarating. Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, who is a familiar face on my list: Two years ago, his unbelievably raw prison drama Starred Up ranked as my No. 4 film of the year. This year, Mackenzie is back with an even better movie. Just as with Starred Up, his knack for shameless filmmaking is clearly evident here, and his direction is self-assured and impeccable.
Helping Mackenzie along the way is Taylor Sheridan’s perfect (yes, perfect) script. Sheridan’s screenwriting debut was in last year’s Sicario, another of my favorite films, and in Hell or High Water, he has continued to tap into his screenwriting strengths, penning a script that is both emotionally visceral and distinctively enigmatic. Hell or High Water is the single greatest modern western since the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture-winner No Country for Old Men (2007), and to be honest, I actually like this one better (which seems almost sinful to say, considering No Country for Old Men is utterly amazing)—Hell or High Water is a much broader and deeper character study, causing you to be emotionally invested into the back-stories of nearly all of its characters. Needless to say, Mackenzie and Sheridan have crafted a classic in the western genre.
To top it all off, Hell of High Water is masterfully acted. Chris Pine has made his mark in Hollywood as the current Captain Kirk in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, but in this film, he proves that his acting chops are worthy of broader critical praise. His character devises the plan to rob local banks in order to “stick it to the man,” as those very banks threatened to take his family’s ranch. In carrying out these robberies, Pine’s Toby is focused and resolute. This is much the opposite of his brother Tanner, brilliantly played by Ben Foster. In films like Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma, and 2016’s The Program, Foster has long proved that he is an incredibly talented artist; however, he gives the best performance of his career as Tanner Howard. Tanner is a former convict who has been recently paroled, and the idea of risking his freedom for more crimes does not faze him one bit—in fact, Tanner embraces it. While Toby is more concentrated during the robberies, Tanner is a bit more erratic. In one scene, while the brothers are taking a break from their robberies to eat lunch at a local diner, Tanner walks across the street to single-handedly rob another bank, risking the entire operation. Tanner is intense and unpredictable, and Foster portrays these characteristics with precision.
However, as can be expected, the show is stolen by a vintage performance by Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Bridges is clearly one of the best to ever do it, and he channels that first-rate acting in Hell or High Water. Closing in on his retirement, Marcus spends much of his time joking with his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and contemplating life. However, when it comes to chasing the Howard brothers across West Texas, Marcus is as focused as ever. The character is methodical and precise in his investigation, and Bridges plays it beautifully—this is definitely one of those performances I will remember for a long time. Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.
Hell or High Water trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQoqsKoJVDw
Academy Award nominations for Hell of High Water:
Best Picture (Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges)
Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan)
Best Film Editing (Jake Roberts)
Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:
- O.J.: Made in America
- La La Land
- Nocturnal Animals