Hell or High Water full movie review - Powerful, Poignant and Pertinent !!!
'Hell or High Water' is one of those films which doesn't do anything technically or storytelling wise that you haven't seen attempted before, however it so well directed, so well written and so well acted, that you can't help but be bowled over by it.
This is one of the best modern westerns I have seen in the recent past.
'Hell or High Water' at the heart of it is about the failure of the American economic system. Like a few other films made after the great economic crisis of 2008, the film comments upon how there are many parts of America and the American population that the post 2008 financial recovery process has failed to touch. Just like the John Ford or Frank Capra films of the Depression Era, more than characters, it is the institutions like the banks that get vilified in 'Hell or High Water'. The motivation behind the crimes committed by Toby and Tanner has its roots in the past injustices done by the bank against their mother which adds to this theme. At the basic level what 'Hell or High Water' does by depicting the recession hit working class America is lift the veil of America's economic prosperity from the eyes of urban America and the world as a whole.
When it comes to films about vigilantes, you can have something like Arthur Penn's 'Bonnie and Clyde' which romanticises the actions of the characters, or you can have Terrence Malick's 'Badlands' where Malick cheekily makes fun of how mindless and reckless vigilantes/criminals/hell-raisers can accidentally find their way into folklore and mythic status. 'Hell or High Water' manages to remain reasonably neutral in its stance. Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan show us both the sides. On one side they give us the motivations of the Howard brothers which are to some extent understandable. We also get these great side characters who are Texas residents and who somewhat side with the brothers from an idealistic standpoint due to their own financial misery and exploitation at the hands of the banks which makes them want to live vicariously through the brothers. However the other side of the moralistic divide is also represented by showing how easily things can go out of hand and lead to devastating consequences in these situations. The characters of the rangers, Marcus and Alberto help the narrative to give us the opposite point of view. Marcus and Alberto share a very brotherly relationship mirroring the relationship of the Tanner brothers. This is why when the film progresses towards its climax and we encounter fatal repercussions of the antics of Toby and Tanner, we understand the flip-side of vigilantism.
David Mackenzie's direction is mature and gritty. He knows exactly how long to hold a shot and knows how much he can stretch and elongate a particular scene to infuse gravitas into it. He creates a brilliant dreary, desolate atmosphere. The streets and corners of the small Texas towns(although the film was shot in New Mexico) portray perfectly the presence of stagnation, a sense of disillusionment and apathy due to lack of progress and economic developments in the areas. Mackenzie makes some of the fields, the huge open spaces and ruinous locations look almost post-apocalyptic. He uses a lot of images of billboards with signs like 'Closing Down' or 'Debt Relief' at the side of the roads to further drive home the thematic backdrop of the story. The style of direction and the nature of the story itself has a very Coen brothers like feel to it and the viewer will be reminded of films like 'No Country for Old Men', 'Blood Simple', etc. But Mackenzie shows enough of his own flair to lift this from being blandly derivative. Taylor Sheridan has to be given a lot of credit for the depth of the screenplay. With 'Sicario' and now 'Hell or High Water', he has shown that he can use real socio-economic issues(drug war in Sicario) of the world as the backdrop of his screenplays and use such issues to enrich the surface level story lines. The intricate details of the script are very thoughtfully and intelligently written and they make a lot of sense.
The acting is stellar. Chris Pine, just like he did in 'Z for Zachariah', drops his pretty boy status and plays a scruffy character with depth and gravity. He still retains the likability however which is also needed in this film to some extent. Ben Foster plays the live- wire Tanner and portrays the character with just the correct amount of energy and dynamism to prevent himself from going a bit too over- the-top. The chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham is great. Their conversations range from childish teasing to nuanced discussion on America's racial history. Bridges' character is lonely and awaiting retirement and he hides his fear of having to live a lonely life post retirement by constantly teasing Alberto(Gil). All the scenes involving Bridges and Birmingham are captivating.
Only one minor flaw bothered me and it has something to do with the dialogue in a few scenes. Some of the lines exchanged between two characters in the film told me exactly what fate lied ahead for these characters. The foreshadowing was a little too on the nose for me and the characters met the exact respective fates that I knew they would due to this blatancy.
'Hell or High Water' is a fantastic film that keeps the viewer always on the edge and has something to say about contemporary American society which gives it pertinence. It is brilliantly directed, brilliantly written and brilliantly acted. The ending scene perfectly encapsulates the sphere of moral ambiguity that the film as a whole resides within. Highly recommended.