‘Hell Or High Water’ Serves Cinematic Justice (Movie Review)

hell-or-high-water-posterThe 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. The film is also an effective heist drama with tangible stakes.



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. At 95-minutes without credits, 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.

hell or high wa

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 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.

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.



2 Responses to “‘Hell Or High Water’ Serves Cinematic Justice (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    You know I went to the crappy Killing Joke over the screening of this with Ben, Chris and Jeff in attendance. How stupid am I?
    This is definitely on my radar to see Sunday morning!!!

  2. Aaron Neuwirth

    Yeah, that’s one of your dumber decisions. 😉