REVIEW: ‘Hell Or High Water,’ A Modern Western And An Instant Classic

There’s been many good films released in 2016, but “Hell or High Water” is the first I can really call great.

The movie follows the Howard brothers, an ex-convict/roughneck Tanner (Ben Foster) and a divorced dad, Toby (Chris Pine). While the two are on good terms, they don’t exactly have the same way of doing things. However, the two decide to work together in a bank-robbing scheme to save their family’s ranch in Texas.

As a result, a duo of Texas Rangers are sent after the brothers. The pair includes Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who’s about to retire and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who has to put up with Marcus’ rough personality.

At first glance, “Hell or High Water” looks like a rather simple picture, a straightforward chase feature between cops and robbers. However, as the movie goes on, it gets more complex because of its multiple layers. Throughout the movie, audiences get to see Marcus questioning how he’ll spend retirement, Toby trying to keep hold of some ethics while robbing the banks and Tanner’s continual descent in life.

As a result, the movie ends up exploring multiple themes, such as brotherhood, family, desperation and even police partnerships.

Along with compelling characters that help an audience stay invested in the story from start to finish, “Hell or High Water” is also wonderfully suspenseful. This is largely because of a feeling of unpredictability hanging over the audience’s heads, whether it’s not knowing when the cops and robbers will eventually meet or being uncertain as to when Tanner’s temper will be set off.

A great example of the latter is a scene where Tanner is in a casino and he loses some money while gambling. In doing so, he meets another character and the two have a very brief, but intense conversation. Another fantastic moment is the film’s climax, where two of the lead characters meet for a final discussion.

These sequences are largely bolstered by the script, written exceptionally well by Taylor Sheridan. Every segment of dialogue either provides character depth, social commentary or cynical humor. Even short moments of dialogue, for example the two Texas Rangers speaking to cattle ranchers for just a few minutes, gives insight into the setting that the movie takes place in.

Speaking of setting, the picture has gorgeous cinematography, bringing the look of rural West Texas fully to life. From start to finish, audiences are exposed to sights ranging from open landscapes to small town America, complete with typical “main” streets and old diners. Everything has significant attention to detail making what happens on screen feel more genuine.

In terms of acting, the film features superb performances across the board. Pine, for example, gives the best of his career so far, with a reserved performance filled with subtle emotional notes. One scene in particular, where Pine’s character talks with his son, shows off his delicate acting job.

Bridges, meanwhile, offers his best work since winning an Academy Award for 2009’s “Crazy Heart” and Foster is brilliant by capturing his character’s temper and unpredictability.

“Hell or High Water” is a modern western and an instant classic. Its script, camerawork, acting and direction elevate a simple story of cops and robbers to a memorable, complex and meaningful cinematic experience. 5 out of 5.

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Author: Matthew Liedke

My name is Matthew Liedke. I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, but I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I now write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead where I studied journalism and film. Outside of film, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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