“Hell or High Water,” a Heavenly Experience?

By Jason Yon
Elm Staff Writer

Set in rough and tumble West Texas, “Hell or High Water” follows two brothers as they struggle to survive and prosper after the death of their mother. Much like the Coen Brother’s “No Country for Old Men,” this film deals with the clash between new and old in the frontier on modern times, where it appears not much has changed from the days of the Wild West. Both films deliver this theme with a heavy dose of realism. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the Coen’s escapades in the West, “Hell or High Water” was a breath of fresh prairie air after a claustrophobic summer of bland action movies.
In “Hell or High Water,” Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) scramble to accumulate enough money to keep their deceased mother’s ranch from falling into the hands of a local bank. Unfortunately, their methods of acquiring funds include robbing from the very branch of banks that they intend to pay. Their plan is to launder the money through local casinos and then pay the bank back with its own untraceable money. The Texas Rangers soon follow suit with Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) taking the lead. Tanner, recently released from a 10 year sentence, has little issues with the act of robbing banks and the eventual violence that ensues. Instead, he possesses a certain level of comfort and skill in these activities, and at times it seems they are almost habitual, compulsory activities for him.  On the other hand, Toby, who is clearly an amateur criminal, is much more cautious about their activities and occasionally chastises his brother for his reckless nature.
One of the highlights of the movie is the relationships between the Howards brothers and Hamilton and his deputy. The Howard brothers share many touching and humorous moments. They clearly care for each other and it shows. Likewise, the relationship of the two Rangers, Hamilton and Alberto, also shines. Hamilton spends a great deal of the movie teasing his deputy, but they both agree that Alberto will miss the occasional joke. It is a very dynamic movie, changing back and forth between the duos almost constantly. The brothers are occupied with robbing banks for a majority of the movie, but the Rangers have several moments where they can slow down and talk.
At one point, Alberto draws a connection between the displacement of Native Americans and the current situation of corrupt banks controlling land. This corruption becomes a visual theme as the two pairs travel across rural Texas. Much of the locations in the film, apart from the lavish casinos, are run down and visibly hurting communities.  For sale signs litter the store fronts and broken cars line the streets.
The imagery and sound of the film is nearly as important as the relationships of the main characters. It is simultaneously beautiful and dangerously tense, likely an accurate representation of wild Texas. The wide open expanse of the west Texas prairies contrasts and compliments the cramped car cabins and bank lobbies were all of the action takes place. The unconventional and sometimes prolonged camera angles kept the audience nervous and uncomfortable. The tension was built up in each scene and wasn’t necessarily released upon moving to a new scene.  Furthermore, the occasional absence of a film score leaves only the chirping crickets to accompany the brothers and Rangers, adding to the extremely tense atmosphere. It’s in these moments that the audience can almost feel the Texan heat where seconds feel like minutes.
“Hell or High Water” is absolutely beautifully tense and sensationally realistic. The film as a whole is certainly Oscar worthy as well as the performances of Pine and Foster.  Further work from the director, David Mackenzie, would also be greatly appreciated. While not a western in the traditional sense, “Hell or High Water” has earned itself a spot among the greats for its themes and execution.  It is a shame that it is technically a film festival movie and only received limited release. Anyone who is a fan of the Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” or the Western genre in general, cannot afford to miss this film.
Score: A+

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