Robin Hood meets the modern western
Hell or High Water (2016): A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family's ranch in West Texas.
Alright. Before I get started, let me say this: GO SEE THIS MOVIE. It is an extremely worthwhile film, complete with a very relevant statement to what we now call, "Donald Trump's America" from both a progressive and conservative standpoint. There's drama, beautiful set design, great cinematography, and wonderful performances from Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, and, especially, Ben Foster. So, what makes this film one of the best of the year?
It starts with the writing. This film paints a devastating picture of west Texas, ravaged by the 2008 financial crisis that feels like it's being left behind that was really eye-opening for me. You see the hardened southerner struggling to get by, and (justifiably) blaming the banks for their hardships. You sympathize with the main characters and their motivations for wanting to rob the very people they feel have been robbing them, even though what they're doing is objectively wrong. Pine and Foster are fantastic as the main characters, (they are also brothers in this film and have great chemistry) and as the film progresses and their actions become more desperate and despicable, I still found myself sympathizing with them. This is a terrific achievement for this film, and it makes the ending that much more poignant. Equally sympathetic despite being on the exact opposite side of the coin is Jeff Bridges and his partner's (played by the great Native American actor Gil Birmingham) story line, and their unique relationship comes to a great and unpredictable conclusion as well.
This film wears a lot of hats and wears all of them successfully, but there's a lot more going on than just that. This film is shot beautifully by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who showcases the vastness of Texas in terrific fashion. The film has a strong cast, though in my opinion Ben Foster steals the show. He plays a wild card character, and his performance actually reminded me a lot of Jeremy Renner from Ben Affleck's The Town. Actually, I saw a lot of The Town in this, as well as a lot of No Country for Old Men. In fact, I would say that that's my biggest complaint of this film: it lives in the shadow of a lot of other films that have similar premises. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it was hard for me not to get comparisons to other films out of my mind while watching this. This film is definitely Joel and Ethan Cohen light. Complete with The Dude, too! But I digress. I also have to take a moment to appreciate Chris Pine. There's no doubt that he's one of Hollywood's most versatile actors, and it is pretty crazy to see him go from playing the charismatic Captain Kirk to this very nitty gritty character with a lot of depth and who is very down-to-earth. While I enjoyed Foster's performance more, Pine's performance was definitely a wonderful reminder of just how great acting can be. Jeff Bridges was great too, though he was definitely not trying to escape the shadow of Tommy Lee Jones from No Country for Old Men.
Ultimately, the compelling story of Hell or High Water is what props it up and makes it one of the best films of the year. Between painting a picture of Donald Trump's America in a way that everyone can sympathize and relate to, and showing two brothers trying desperately to beat the seemingly unbreakable bank, director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan successfully ride a thin line between conservatism and progressivism. And while it does live in the shadow of a few other films, that shadow is definitely a great place to be. Go see this movie.
The Critique: Despite living in the shadow of some modern classics, Hell or High Water rises above it thanks to a compelling and devastating story, great visuals, and terrific performances from Ben Foster and Chris Pine. One of the best films of the year.
The Recommendation: While films like Moonlight and La La Land are receiving a lot of well-deserved press, Hell or High Water has been somewhat overlooked. Don't make that mistake. This film is a must-see for everyone and well worth your time.
The Verdict: 9/10 Outstanding
Oscar Talk: Like Ben Foster in this film, I think this will be something of a wild card when the Oscar nominations are dropped. I think it receives a Best Screenplay nod but beyond that.....? Hopefully it receives a Best Picture nod too but everything else is pretty much up in the air due to the simple lack of public knowledge for this flick. C'mon, Academy! Don't let this one slip by!
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