If there is one film genre that has seemingly gone obsolete, it is the western. That isn’t to say the western as a theme has been entirely eradicated, but the iconic westerns made by John Ford and Howard Hawks, and starring the likes of John Wayne, or the brilliant spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood a star, are something of the past. However, the western theme has persisted, but rather than being mindless, energetic fun, they have become far more trendy and hip, with lingering social messages. One only needs to look towards films that can be called contemporary westerns such as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men to see that the western hasn’t really gone anywhere. Yet, they are all so dour and serious (even if There Will Be Blood is arguably the greatest cinematic achievement of the 21st century) – and I haven’t seen a film that is just mindless fun in the western genre in a while. Please don’t think that I’m implying that Hell or High Water is the film that changed that – this is still a pretty serious film with a lingering social message. But if it isn’t one of the more entertaining contemporary westerns, then I don’t know what is.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his brother, Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are a pair of Texan fellows who decide that they want to pay for a house, so they take to robbing banks. Chasing them along the way is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzly old police officer on the doorstep of retirement. Toby and Tanner rob banks, and Hamilton chases after them. That is the entire film. There aren’t any major narrative complications, and the film never tries to be too difficult or boastful about its story. It is a simple plot, and much like the westerns that inspired it, it is just a basic, but very entertaining, plot that doesn’t do too much in terms of creating something complicated.
Hell or High Water, as great as it is, is still a very flawed film. The biggest flaw comes in the casting of the two leads. Chris Pine just seems far too cerebral and straight-laced to play a Texan bank robber – I just couldn’t believe that he was someone willing to risk becoming a criminal, regardless of the moral message this film has. He just doesn’t seem to work in the context of this film, and despite giving a good performance, he just doesn’t do particularly well in convincing me that this character was as realistic and believable as possible. Ben Foster is given a pretty great and solid character, but he never takes it where this character should naturally go, and he rather gives a performance that is slightly misguided and mishandled. Both Pine and Foster are very capable actors, and there was no reason for them to not have given great performances. The roles were written very well, so I blame the fact that this didn’t work solely on the casting of the two actors, who are otherwise talented, but just didn’t work well here (and Foster was often just plain irritating, and you feel completely unsympathetic towards him, which was not the aim of the character I assume).
However, thankfully Jeff Bridges is in this film to save it. When you’re an esteemed and beloved actor like Jeff Bridges, especially at this point in your career, people will show up to watch you read the newspaper. Thankfully, in Hell or High Water, gives one of his best performances in years. I can’t remember a performance in the last decade where Bridges has been quite as good as he has here in Hell or High Water (with the exception of wonderful work in Crazy Heart and True Grit). He takes the role of Marcus Hamilton – an otherwise racist, foul-mouthed bigot – and turns him into a sympathetic and very interesting character. I feel like a major problem with Hell or High Water is that it focused on the wrong characters. While the story of Toby and Tanner is central to the film, I was far more captivated by the exploits of Hamilton and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), both because this part of the story was radically better than the two brothers robbing banks, and also because Bridges and Birmingham have remarkable chemistry and they bring necessary levity to a very serious film, and while they aren’t outright hilarious, they are entertaining.
Of course, it goes without saying that the true star of this film is Margaret Bowman, who in her brief performance in a single scene, as an unnamed waitress, gives a better performance than anyone in this film combined. Nevermind an Academy Award, Bowman deserves a Nobel Prize for this performance. She is an absolute scene-stealer and if the film just focused on her, I probably would call this not only the best film of the year, but the greatest film of all time. Alas, it was not to be.
I was very surprised (and delighted) when I learned that David Mackenzie would be directing the script by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the superb Sicario in 2015). Mackenzie was a strange choice to direct a neo-Western with heavy doses of Americana as a theme, and considering that all of his previous films have been British-produced, it didn’t seem to make sense – yet, when you consider that previously, Mackenzie made the incredible Starred Up (a film so good, that it forced me to place it onto a list of the Best Films of 2014, making it an uneven 11 films, the day before I released the list), you understand how Mackenzie has a grasp on taking a familiar trope and cliched themes, and using a great script, creates a film that appears to be relatively ordinary, but is actually pretty brilliant when you get down to it. Mackenzie is certainly a filmmaker to watch, just like Taylor Sheridan is most definitely someone to keep your eye on as well, and if reports from this year’s Sundance Film Festival are to be believed, Sheridan also has a career as a film director ahead of him.
Hell or High Water did surprise me – we get these kinds of films every year, and most of the time, they range from unwatchable to just boring, very rarely ever being great (like the aforementioned There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men). Hell or High Water is an entertaining and dedicated little film, and it shows that independent cinema can sometimes take even a long-dead genre and breathe some new life into it. Hell or High Water is a very good film, and whether you watch it for the nostalgia, the themes of Americana, or for the cast, it will certainly leave you pretty entertained. Still, watch it for Margaret Bowman. She is the only reason I highly recommend the film (and also because it is a really great film, but mostly for Bowman).