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Hell Or High Water (Blu-ray Review)

hell or high waterThe neo-western has been an interesting genre to keep an eye on. Many of these films take the staples of classic westerns, but are heavily informed by so much that has come before. Brilliant films such as No Country For Old Men or (a personal favorite) The Way of the Gun even get away with cleverly-staged gunplay, but these scenes come at a cost not forgotten. Hell or High Water is one such film. It plays up its contemporary setting and sets us up with well-rounded characters more interested in dialogue dynamics than shootouts. Equally effective as a heist drama, the film made decent bucks this past summer, despite a limited release and now makes its play for awards season. Now here’s the Blu-ray in all its glory.

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Film:

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From writer Taylor Sheridan, an actor who previously scripted the dark crime thriller Sicario, Hell or High Water finds a new set of characters in a tonally similar place. Rather than dealing with the moral ramifications of fighting the war on drugs south of the border though, this film deals with a divorced father doing everything he can to protect his family’s future and a lawman not ready to retire. If that sounds similar to a Cormac McCarthy story then you better believe Hell or High Water also happens to be set in West Texas.

Rather than begin with a load of exposition, the film opens with not one, but two bank robberies. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers Toby and Tanner. Pine is the divorced father in question. Foster is an ex-con. They have some sort of objective that will be made clear later. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham enter as the U.S. Marshalls brought in to stop these guys. There are other little details, such as the connection between the banks being robbed and the nature of both of these partnerships and it is all examined through clever writing.

Westerns are typically defined by a deliberate sense of pacing that sets the stage for tensions to boil over. Hell or High Water is not particularly slow-paced, but it is patient in letting its story unfold. The film does not over-complicate itself with subplots and additional explanations, but it is quite contemplative. We learn who these four main characters are based on their interactions with each other and the solid handle director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) has on them as individuals.

Pine is able to form a full character by all the things he doesn’t say to Foster and other characters, letting his attitude (and mustache) get most of the work done. Foster, who I typically describe as my favorite modern over-actor, delivers on what he is capable of, while bringing a sense of understanding to why he behaves a particular way and seeing what he cares for.

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For the lawman, it’s hard not to like Bridges in his element as a grizzled professional. You could take a certain stance on his character given the way he hurls playful insults at his half Native American partner, but there is a method behind his cruelty and an underlying respect he has, in addition to his skill as a man of the law. For his part though, Birmingham takes in Bridges insults and plays his role with a level of professionalism that fully informs third act developments in the film.

There is no reason to spoil where things go in Hell or High Water, but it was a pleasure to take in an effective epilogue to this story, following the carefully constructed plotting that takes place. In the meantime, we get the bickering between our characters and heist sequences that entertain and raise tension based on their improvised nature. There is also the matter of this setting.

While the film evokes a classic western in many ways, we see towns that have been changed by the times they now exist in. The commentary is pretty light in painting the banks as the ones truly committing a crime, but it does allow for some colorful shading. Whether it’s a brief appearance by Katy Mixon (the Yin to Kenny Powers Yang on Eastbound & Down, among other roles) as a sympathetic waitress or the various salty veterans of the area with different uses for the story, this movie understands the use of its surroundings.

Hell or High Water is a heist thriller that does well by its characters. There is some action, but nothing that overshadows the more effective ideas present. It takes a level of confidence to approach a film in this manner, no matter how many times we’ve seen variations on this concept. The benefit is getting such an effective drama/thriller out of this particular experience, with actors clearly trying to do this script proper justice.

Video:

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Encoding: AVC MPEG-4

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1

Clarity/Detail: The film’s video presentation is pretty terrific. Shot with the Arri Alexa XT, the film’s digital cinematography means presenting an image that appropriately feels grounded and real, but that doesn’t take from being able to see the dusty detail found throughout this feature. Close-ups and wide shots both have a clear look to them, which is best exemplified by picking out the features in the vast settings or noting things like bullet holes or other details when getting a closer look.

Depth: There is an excellent presence of depth of field thanks to the many outdoor shots and placement of the characters, which really highlights the dimensionality of a given scene.

Black Levels: Black levels are quite strong here. Exterior and some nighttime scenes show a deep and inky image, with no signs of crush.

Color Reproduction: Given the look of the film, color pops up here and there, but without much fanfare. It’s not an issue, but colors are not really supposed to pop. Instead, the film focuses a lot of beiges, yellows and browns to get across a tone. Some scenes set in a casino do add some colorful life though.

Flesh Tones: The use of close-ups allows for a good amount of definition seen in the facial textures.

Noise/Artifacts: No issues here.

 

Audio:

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Audio Format(s): English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio, English 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio Optimized for Late-Night Listening, English Descriptive Audio

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish

Dynamics: Hell or High Water sounds great. It moves back and forth between bigger moments and contemplative talking/thinking scenes and the lossless soundtrack does what is required. It’s a shame Lionsgate didn’t go for a 7.1 audio track, but this 5.1 MA track does plenty to make up what we need to hear.

Low Frequency Extension: The LFE channel gets some moments to play with when it comes to more action-based moments.

Surround Sound Presentation: The film is pretty heavy on dialogue, given all the heist-related action. That said, there is a proper balance to be found thanks to a good center-focus on the talking and much of the film, with the score and ambient noises playing well on the front and rear channels.

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is presented cleanly.

 

Extras:

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There are four main characters in this film that could have been involved on a commentary with Mackenzie or Sheridan. Unfortunately that’s not the cast. Instead, we get a handful of featurettes and a live Q&A.

Features Include:

  • Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water (HD, 13:36) – An EPK that basically goes over the entire plot of the film, with interviews gauging the filmmaker’s and cast’s interpretations.
  • Visualizing the Heart of America (HD, 9:28) – A look at the locations found in the film.
  • Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water (HD, 12:24) – A look at the actors featured in this film and what they bring to their roles.
  • Red Carpet Premiere (HD, 1:53) – A brief clip mixing footage from the Austin premiere with clips from the film.
  • Filmmaker Q&A (HD, 29:51) – All four lead actors and director David Mackenzie speak about the film, following a screening at Arclight Hollywood in the Cineramadome.
  • DVD Copy of the Film
  • Digital HD Copy of the Film

Summary:

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Hell or High Water is one of the best films of the year. Smartly constructed, well-acted and great enough to at least warrant a screenplay nomination come Oscar time. The film is enjoyable and contemplative, well-assembled and great to recommend for many looking for a solid crime story. The Blu-ray features a strong video/audio presentation, with a decent set of extras to round out this package. Seek this one out.

Order Your Copy Here:

hell or high water

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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