Far removed from the American westerns of the 1950s and 60s, cinemas have been void of a true western-style experience. The presence of westerns in recent times have been reserved for remakes of classic films such as “3:10 to Yuma” (2007) and “True Grit” (2010). Later this year will bring an updated version of the “The Magnificent Seven” (2016). With the exception of Best Picture winner, “No Country for Old Men” (2007), an original take on the modern American western has been absent.
Enter “Hell or High-water” (2016). The film penned by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), takes a modern approach to the outlaw versus sheriff narrative, removing any romanticism of such lifestyle exhibited in early westerns. What is displayed to theater audiences is an appropriately relevant critique on society displayed as a bandit adventure in west Texas.
Director David Mackenzie tells the story of two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), who plan a series of bank robberies over the course of a couple days in order to save their family’s farm house from going into foreclosure. Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) go on a hunt across Texas, trying to calculate the brothers’ next move.
The film doesn’t succeed if not for the group of four actors at its core. In particular, Bridges’ portrayal of Hamilton is Oscar worthy. I had heard some rumblings about this performance prior to viewing the film, and to be honest I wasn’t going to let myself fall for the buzz. It is my opinion that Bridges is a serviceable actor, but often plays the same character in each of his roles. And though, Hamilton fits that same Bridges’ mold, he does some subtle things that impressed me from the way he holds his mouth to his ability to create an aura surrounding his character that exhibits power.
Foster in his role as Tanner Howard shows he is an underrated actor. I was drawn in with every minute of his screen time. His portrayal is filled with intensity and showcases an insane ex-convict bound to go back to prison. You are never quite sure wheth-er to like the guy or fear for your life at his presence. That is a fine line to ride for an actor, and Foster captures it without exception. I have always been a fan of Foster and feel he has never quite gained the respect he deserves. His role as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery in “The Messenger” (2009) compared with his work in this film shows an ability to play very different characters, yet still demand the audience feel strong emotions toward both characters.
Both Pine and Birmingham create conflicting companions to their counterparts, Foster and Bridges, respectively. Neither performance is necessarily memorable, but they create a grounding for the relationships established between the duos that are essential for the film to work. Despite being overshadowed a bit, Pine represents sanity when Foster’s character seems drenched in danger. Bridges character operates to almost perfection as a result of Birmingham’s constant looks of irritation and disgust in the midst of unwavering responsibility to his partner.
“Hell or Highwater” does so much well, it is easy to forgive some of its faults, which are few. In a way, I feel like Mackenzie and Sheridan got a little bit lucky their vision succeeded. At times it seems there isn’t a true sense of direction as many scenes felt familiar to previous ones, not moving the plot forward. A huge reason for this is the film’s dialogue, which doesn’t always give us pertinent content to help us understand what is currently happening or will take place shortly.
It ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s not about what is being said. What we witness on the screen is a film about relationships. Relationships between characters and how their similarities and differences work to create positive and negative interactions. Relationships between the Texas landscape, beautifully captured by Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, and the people that call it home. Relationships between cultural norms and those who dare to challenge them. Every relationship observed in the film succeeds in its ability to create peace and chaos all in the same.
Somehow, even in 2016, all the pieces are in place to create a thrilling twist on the American western. “Hell or Highwater” entertains and informs its audience from the first minutes to the moment the credits start rolling. In a year of less than interesting cinema experiences, Mackenzie and company make it worth spending $10 to go to the movies. It is nice to know the western genre isn’t dead, and has managed to come back as relevant as ever. What we are left with is an experience that will resonate with us for the remainder of this year and beyond.