Score: 4.8 out of 5 

Time to get back to writing reviews more often! Then again I say that every time. You know it’s hard having a ton of things you like to do but not enough time to do them all. Law school takes up almost all my time so when I have free time I have to decide between playing basketball, working out, finally turning my PS4 on again, reading a book, painting, watching tv, watching a move, writing a review, etc. It’s just not right having so many things you enjoy but such little free time but such is life, onto the review.

This time I’ll be reviewing Hell or High Water, a David Mackenzie movie in theaters now. I haven’t seen any of this guys other movies but if they’re as good as this one I’ll have to go back and do that. I have to give my friend Brenn Coyle a shout-out for recommending this one or else I would’ve missed out on one of the best movies of the year. I have to say that it’s been longer than I would like since Liz and I saw the movie so some of the details are starting to fade but most of it is still fresh (at least the most important parts). This movie is easier to review weeks after watching than others because since I watched it I’ve been trying to think of things to complain about during my review and I’ve largely drawn blanks. This was true even immediately after watching, back when everything was fresh. The movie has been on my mind ever since. With that being said, lets get down to the details

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Overview: 

This is a modern western/heist film that takes place against the backdrop of various dusty and sparsely populated cities in West Texas. At the center of the story are two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The Howard brothers, our thieves, are joined at the center by Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. In short, the plot focuses on two brothers strategically robbing small banks across West Texas to pay off the bank that screwed over their recently deceased mother and is trying to take the family farm. The two Texas Rangers are hot on their trail, led by Hamilton who is on the brink of retirement. Laid out in this fashion you may be wondering what’s so special about this movie as this is a story that’s been told many times before. You may be thinking there has to be a big twist or something for me to give it such high praise. While there are a few unexpected twists and turns, the story really doesn’t make any major deviations from it’s course. What makes this film great is the subtlety through which it plays out. This movie is polished to perfection with no excess action sequences, no bloated or excessive dialogue, no pointless characters, and so on. To explain what I mean by this let’s jump straight to the details.

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Can we take a second to appreciate how terrible the above poster is? It’s like whoever was in charge of making the ads for this movie realized the day before their assignment was due that they forgot Jeff Bridges was also in the movie and decided to just photoshop his face into the background. But anyway…

The Characters (and Performances):

It’s hard to decide what’s the most impressive part of a film that’s this all-around good. It’s like trying to decide what’s the best part of Steph Curry’s game. Is it his handles? His three-point shooting? His IQ? Who knows, it’s all great! The good thing is that we don’t need to decide. Now if for some reason I was forced to decide I’d probably give it to the acting and the characters.

What makes these characters so great is that we have this situation where it’s law enforcement against criminals and it’s easy to make it so that we’re rooting for either side but here all four of our characters are relatable, likeable, and a joy to watch. Toby is the anti-hero who is doing something bad for a good reason. Tanner is a bit insane and brash but he’s unflinchingly loyal. Marcus may be jaded and too by-the-book but he’s a hell of a cop and can hold his own against anyone half his age. Alberto is too soft-spoken and lets Hamilton give him too much shit but he’s very capable and composed. All the characters are so well balanced that none of them feel unnecessary or one dimensional. This is partly a function of great writing, all four of our characters at the center of attention are really well developed characters, but great acting also plays a part.

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I already respected Chris Pine’s acting before this movie but he tends to play similar characters, the charismatic and good-looking main dude (at least in all the movies I’ve seen him in). In this movie he plays a very introspective and muted role and while he feels like the main character, he’s never thirsting for attention or trying to make himself standout. Part of the reason why that works well is because of Ben Foster, his brother. Pine doesn’t have to be the charismatic scene-stealer because that’s Ben Foster’s role. Foster plays the unhinged Howard brother who seems to relish when things get aggressive and doesn’t mind throwing caution to the wind to a stupidly reckless level. That being said, there is more going on underneath the surface here. The movie never explicitly mentions it but there are hints that Tanner is a veteran. The natural logical leap to make here being that his mental state and aggressive tendencies are at least in part due to his time in the military. This theory is even more likely when you consider his final scene, the decision he makes, and how at peace he looks through it all. Anyway, that’s just my guess and whether that’s true or not doesn’t change the fact that Foster was fantastic as well.

The brothers work because they’re great individual characters but they interact like actual brothers would act. The fierce loyalty, jokes at each other’s expense, affection, and conversations are all natural. And like I said, with this movie less is more. They don’t feel the need to be heavy handed in showing us their bond through flashbacks or anything like that. Instead the scene that stands out to me is them being able to take a break between the craziness of what they’re doing to tackle each other and mess around while the sun sets. No words needed to be said, we could tell there was a genuine bond there.

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Jeff Bridges is my favorite actor in this movie, clearly the man can act and that was certainly on display here. He plays a crotchety old cop on his way out who is dreading retirement because he only feels a sense of purpose while he’s out catching bad guys. It’s a trope that’s been done a hundred times before in movies, TV shows, books, etc. While his character is nothing new, he plays him to perfection. He reminded me of a modern-day, more professional, version of his character from the Coen Brothers’ film True Grit (2010) (another fantastic western). One scene in particular really elevated Bridges’ performance. Late in the movie, during an emotional climax, Bridges reacts with so much raw emotion on his face and in his voice that I felt like I could feel what he was feeling. It was impressive! Like with the Howard brothers, his scenes derive much of their intimacy and power from the great relationship he has with his partner. His partner is played by Gil Birmingham, the actor I know least about in the movie. You’d never notice he has way less experience than the other actors because he keeps up with Jeff Bridges the entire time. His character probably had the smallest role of the main four but that doesn’t mean he has a small impact. Towards the end he’s even a key part of one of the most important scenes in the movie.

The Script:

The characters in this movie are great because their roles are acted well but this would mean nothing without a good script. For how deep and compelling the characters are, they’re still roles that we’ve seen many times before. It’s thanks to the script that the characters are elevated beyond being clichés. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a lean movie. There is no excess of anything here and that goes for the script too. This doesn’t mean that it’s a movie where no one talks or that’s full of silence like Drive (2011). There is plenty of great banter, especially between the two Rangers. What this does mean is that nothing feels out of place or like filler. Everything the characters say, even the ones who are just there to deliver one-liners, has a purpose and fleshes out the story or adds to the atmosphere.

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Again, another scene comes to mind that demonstrates what I mean. Early in the film Hamilton and Parker are forced to pull over on the highway as a group of cowboys are herding cattle across the road to flee from a large fire. After an interaction with them Parker asks something along the lines of, “Should we call somebody?” and Hamilton replies, “No, there’s nothing we can do. Those boys are on their own out there.” I probably butchered that quote as it’s been weeks since I saw the movie and I couldn’t find the quote online but even so it stands out as much now as it did then. I was wondering if the fire or the cowboys would be relevant later on in the film but they didn’t appear again. I realized that that short interaction and comment were actually meant to be symbolic of the Howard brothers and their journey (at least I think). The Howard brothers are two simple, old school guys who were left hung out to dry by the bank. They’ve exhausted their options and, like the cowboys, they’re on their own. It’s up to them to survive and find a way out, no one can or will help them.

Moments like the one I mentioned above occur throughout the movie and I think that’s why I was engrossed in the story from beginning to end even though the plot and characters were nothing revolutionary. It felt like everything every character had to say served a purpose and I didn’t want to miss any of it. This screenplay was penned by Taylor Sheridan, the same guy behind Sicario (2015). There’s another movie that I enjoyed, although not nearly as much as this one. I had many issues with Sicario but I can’t deny that it was a very well-written movie. Sheridan only has three writing credits under his belt and for Hell or High Water and Sicario to be two of the three makes him someone to keep an eye on.

The Cinematography:

Again, as you’ve noticed in my other reviews, cinematography is one of my favorite aspects to talk about. Without wanting to go into a tangent on the difference between cinematography and mise-en-scene, I’ll just say that both are working seamlessly well together here. The framing Giles Nuttgens used throughout the film was masterful. Whether it was a low-angle shot during a robbery, a huge crane shot of the West Texas countryside, or a great side-car shot during a getaway, the framing was top-notch.

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Besides the framing, the color palette was perfect. The entire film has a washed out look to it, as if everything is covered in a layer of dust. This lends itself well to creating a thick atmosphere. By that I mean that you don’t just watch this movie, you can feel it in a way. The impression given is that this is a rough place to survive, either you improvise and toughen up like the Howard brothers or you get burnt to a crisp by the fire. Even the wallpaper and colors of the various restaurants and banks all seem so fitting. From dusty town to dusty town and the large empty expanses in between, this movie makes you feel like you’re watching something authentic. Speaking of large expanses, there are plenty of those. The characters spend ALOT of time driving from city to city and during that time we get these really large scale shots of huge landscapes. Those scenes are beautiful to look at; it’s like looking at a painting. The film also makes great use of the ominous clouds in the sky to indicate a sort of calm before the storm. Additionally, the lighting here was great. Again I’m not saying it was anything revolutionary but it was really well used to create some beautiful scenes. The one that stands out to me is again the scene of the two brothers wrestling, their shadows illuminated by the gorgeous night sky. If we didn’t know any better, they might just pass for two innocent kids messing around in the backyard.

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Lastly, the setting, palette, and atmosphere reminded me a great deal of No Country for Old Men (2010), another Coen Brothers masterpiece. I hesitate to say this because I don’t want anyone to think I just think every movie involving cowboys and set in Texas feels the same but there are some legitimate comparisons to be made here. No Country for Old Men is another movie that creates a similar atmosphere, although much more bleak. There is a similar use of color palette, clouds, broad expanses, and lighting  in both of these movies. Huge credit to Giles Nutgens, he did an amazing job with this one. I haven’t watched any of the other films he’s worked on but this was great.

The Story:

Lastly, I want to talk about the story. The reason I saved this for last was because this was my least favorite part of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the story was excellent but it was just the weakest part of the film in relation to all the other aspects I discussed above. The reason why I say this is because the plot as a whole was nothing too revolutionary. That being said, this movie doesn’t seek to be something revolutionary and not every story needs to be in order to be a good story. That is, however, what’s holds the movie back from me giving it a perfect score. To get a perfect score I think you need to not only be a very good movie that does everything right like this one does, you need to change the game up at least a little bit.

As I outlined earlier, this movie is about two brothers robbing banks to save their late mother’s home and the two Texas Rangers intent on stopping them. Sounds like a pretty standard setup right? Well, it kind of is. I don’t want to spoil anything but there are a few unexpected twists and turns that make the story more unique but the weight everything has in this movie, at least for me, was largely due to all the stuff I mentioned above (characters, atmosphere, the script, etc.) rather than because the story itself was so engrossing.

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The Verdict:

To conclude, clearly you can tell I loved this movie. I can’t believe I almost missed it! I really recommend this one to anyone who enjoys extremely polished, well-acted, and well-written movies (so like…everyone). Above I mention that the story was the weakest link but even the story was really damn good so what does that tell you? Watch it!!

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