Obviously, I am a few months behind the curve writing this review. Seeing it was a Best Picture – Drama contender at the Golden Globes, I find a tardy review to be mostly appropriate…but I’ll try to keep it short.
As I watch the movie again in my head, what stands out the most is the soundtrack and score in tandem with the visual storytelling. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s original score carries an air of desperation and tension, setting the tone early in the film (having become more familiar with some of his work lately, Cave’s signature eclectic intensity is on full display). Their work usually stands out and lends identity to the films (Lawless, The Road, and one of my recent favorites: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The music department did a fantastic job, particularly the music supervisors David McKenzie and Jake Roberts. The songs used throughout the movie fit like a glove, filling the gaps with fun and irreverence in the face of defeat. Although the setting is contemporary, the soundtrack and story reinforce the Western at the heart of the film.
I have a soft spot for Westerns, mostly because of their thematic tendencies and landscape cinematography. Stories traditionally centered around family, adventure, loyalty, honor and often revenge. Hell or High Water doesn’t stray from those. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of brothers with a strained relationship in the midst of a bank robbing spree across West Texas. Jeff Bridges plays the aging Texas Ranger tasked with discovering the bandits’ identities and bringing them to justice. Certainly reminiscent of No Country For Old Men, also set is West Texas. Bleak, drab and desperate…a recipe for danger. The mostly desolate small towns on display a stark reminder of economic and cultural depression. One scene in particular highlights the plight of the area: a group of ranchers herd their cattle across the highway, while dry pastures burn in the distance, contemplating their place in the modern era.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is a West Texas native and wore his heart on his sleeve for this one. A personal connection rich with intangible authenticity. The setting acting as an omnipresent character of its own. Ever looming in the background win or lose. Brothers Tanner (Foster) and Toby (Pine) Howard’s fractured relationship is the film’s fulcrum. Tested by circumstance and choices, the characters are well thought out and have clear arcs. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) is a relic from a bygone era awaiting retirement. Connected to the present only by his sense of duty and justice. Of the three primary characters, Foster steals the show. Bridges is always a good performer and tis role fit him very well. Pine was a pleasant surprise, a major diversion from his Captain Kirk. Relying neither on his looks or his sense of comedic timing, his stripped down approach to the character was some of his best work and should provide some new opportunities moving forward.
Director David McKenzie did a good job with the A-list names on his cast. This movie was certainly his highest profile project to date and the recognition it has garnered is evident of his preparation and execution. Naturally he went to stalwart Giles Nuttgens for his Director of Photography. He had worked with McKenzie previously on a several other films; Tonight You’re Mine (2011), Perfect Sense (2011), and Hallam Foe (2007). They have a clear understanding of what the other wants, and the cinematography in this film is exquisite. The camera soaks up wide landscape shots like an earthy sponge. All the natural beauty framing the rugged exterior of its inhabitants, grizzled by harsh life. Nuttgens has a keen eye for framing, using everything at his disposal.
This movie has all the right elements, but before I started writing this review I couldn’t help but feel it fell short of the “Best Picture” threshold. I felt the film was good. Far above average in fact, but lacking something special. Void of some cinematic signature. I was wrong and have to recant my original stance. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s the best movie of 2016, but it absolutely deserves to be in the conversation.
Recommendation: If you still have the chance to see this movie, check it out. There is enough action to scratch that itch and a compelling story to bring you along for the ride. Not really for kids, but doesn’t have the traditional trappings of rated R fare.