'Hell or High Water' delivers, but not the expected action film
“Hell or High Water” may not be for everyone, but I think that’s honestly for the best. David Mackenzie’s newest film is strange, uncompromising, beautiful, confounding and frankly a breath of fresh air in a year full of films that have failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps this disappointing year was the key to “Hell or High Water”; I had no expectations for it, so I never assumed it would be one of the best films I’ve seen so far in 2016.
The film’s plot revolves around brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) who plot to rob the various branches of Texas Midlands Bank in an attempt to stop the foreclosure of their ranch. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton who, along with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), plans to catch the bank robbers before they can commit another crime. The film is laced with subplots involving Toby’s family, Marcus’s impending retirement and the brothers’ dead mother. And yet this is not a movie about story but instead a movie about moments. Moments of beauty, moments of pain, moments of violence and moments of ennui.
“Hell or High Water” reminded me more than anything of the very best of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, and that is undeniably high praise. Capturing the essence of McCarthy’s writing is tough work because his style embodies a distinct sense of strange emptiness and ghostly beauty. But director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have somehow tapped into that style’s cinematic equivalent. The dialogue is functional, not fashionable, and the characters are quiet, not expressive. For some people, this manner of storytelling may lack appeal, and I’ll admit that if every film I watched were told like this I’d probably go a little stir crazy. But every once in a while, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker eschew many of the safeguards of modern cinema.
While the characters remain partially shrouded in mystery for the film’s entirety, the actors all manage to bring an impressive gravitas to the story despite the limited amount of dialogue they are provided. Bridges is, of course, excellent, though no one would expect anything less from him. Foster is also surprisingly good, bringing humanity to a character who would otherwise be incredibly easy to hate. Pine’s performance, however, is the best by a mile. The character of Toby, the more straight-laced of the two brothers, should be the most boring character in the film. But Pine brings a depth and maturity to match Bridges and Foster; he surprised me more and more with each passing scene. The fact of the matter is that Chris Pine has been associated for years with the character of Captain Kirk, who he plays flawlessly. But in many respects, Kirk is the exact opposite of Toby, who is far more introspective and brooding. One wouldn’t expect Pine to make the transition so seamlessly, but I think with this film he proves himself to be a truly excellent actor. One scene in particular relies entirely on Pine’s ability to hold the audience’s attention, and he somehow manages to never drop the ball.
A few weeks ago I watched “Don’t Think Twice” in a theater and saw a trailer for “Hell or High Water,” and I realized it was being advertised as some sort of exciting heist thriller film. If you go into the movie with that expectation, you will be disappointed. Even in its most intense and brutal sequence, “Hell or High Water” feels far more tragic than exciting. But like I said, this film simply isn’t for everyone, and I have no doubt that some people will walk out frustrated by the misdirection of the advertising. If you walk into “Hell or High Water” expecting it to be quiet, contemplative and rather haunting then you might be surprised by how much you like it. That being said, while I thoroughly admire the filmmaking on display, I found that I felt a little hollow inside when I left the theater. The film seemed to focus so much on its distinctive style that it failed to really hit me on an emotional level. The ending especially didn’t provide me with a feeling of closure, though I think that may well be the point. And perhaps avoiding an emotional connection with the audience is also what the director was going for. But frankly, I have a hard time truly loving a film without some level of emotional investment, so instead I must just admire “Hell or High Water” from afar. I don’t imagine it will be very difficult — after all, there is a great deal to admire.